Soft leaders, hard times

By Ivan Debono


If I’d had a French vote on 6th May I’d have given it to Nicolas Sarkozy without hesitation. In fact I gave my vote to his political party, the UMP, in 2008’s municipal elections in Paris, and in 2009’s European elections and never regretted it. In 2012, Sarkozy was still the best option.

There has been a flood of post-mortems in the wake of Sarkozy’s defeat. Press opinion, as we know, is not electoral opinion. Most press opinion outside France consistently failed to get a correct reading of the French situation. What’s more, the US and UK media could hardly be expected to look favourably upon a Europhile French president, so they were biased right from the start.

Inside France, most of the press, true to its traditions, is fervently left-wing. The French intellectual left sees itself as the holder of the moral high ground. It could never stomach Sarkozy’s emotional sincerity, or his popularity with blue-collar workers, whom it had snobbed.

Which leaves us with the electorate. Why didn’t the French elect Sarkozy? Most pundits have blamed his opportunism, his nastiness or his showy opulence.

Opportunism? Hardly. Sarkozy’s first measure in 2007 was to reach out to the opposition and include socialists and centrists in his government: Bernard Kouchner, Martin Hirsch, Fadela Amara, among others. Most of them unashamedly supported Hollande in 2012. Nastiness? Sarkozy endured five years of jibes by the press over anything: his short stature, his marital life, his accent. Anything but his policies.

As for opulence, socialist politicians are hardly representative of the average French income. Just this week, François Hollande published his declaration of assets: a very comfortable 1.17 million euros. Just enough to avoid the wealth tax, which starts at 1.3 million. His much-vaunted fiscal reform will still spare him.

Between 2007 and 2012, Sarkozy lost around 4% of the total vote, in both election rounds. These 4% are mostly the Orléanist, liberal right. They elected Sarkozy because he was the first French politician to offer a strategy for France in a globalised world. They were disappointed when he backtracked so soon.  His budget reforms still left public expenditure at a record 56% of GDP. Universities were granted autonomy, but not the freedom to select students. The retirement age was raised to 62. In most European countries it is 65.

Beyond that, there is the general feeling of unrealised expectations among the ordinary, silent French, the petits gens so cherished by the centrist François Bayrou, the ones who never feature in the foreign press. The one astonishing fact of this election is that the figures do not add up: there were more right-wing than left-wing votes. Yet the socialist Hollande won.

These voters wanted an uncompromising, reformist president, a Gaullist even – a 2007 vintage Sarkozy who would not pander to left-wing critics. There was a glimmer of hope last February, when Sarkozy was rumoured to have decided on a vast reform of the welfare state. But it came to nothing, and in the end the candidate Sarkozy went to the polls with a timid, unambitious list of electoral proposals, a mere shadow of his 2007 programme.

Sarkozy did not lose because he was too much to the right, but because he was too soft. He sought compromise when he should have taken the hard line. Hollande built his whole programme, and his political career, on compromise. And the French know it. They have nicknamed him Monsieur Flanby, after a well-known brand of caramel custard. All over France, supermarket assistants, with exquisite Gallic wit, have been stacking “Président” cheese next to “Flanby” cartons on the cold counter. The message is clear: even his supporters acknowledge his major weakness.

Having been brought to power by a disparate coalition of socialists, communists, Trotskyites and radical greens whose only uniting feature was an antipathy for Sarkozy and nostalgia for the Golden Years of Mitterrand, he will find that compromise won’t get him very far.

Sarkozy promised not to be another Louis XVI. He emulated him in planning a multitude of reforms which were never completed. As Tocqueville, writing on pre-Revolutionary France, said: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it starts to reform.” Indeed. Hollande is now president, France is crying out for reform, and the critical moment is upon us.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 16 May, 2012.