The Triumph of the Conservatives France Lurches to the Right

A large majority of French voters have elected Nicolas Sarkozy to become Jacques Chirac's successor. The election marks a clear shift to the right in the country. But while Sarkozy likes to present himself as a unifier, the radical political and moral cure he wants to prescribe could instead trigger deep social conflicts in French society.

By in Paris

Perhaps it wasn't exactly a landslide, but it was certainly an unambiguous result: France's 44 million voters have chosen Nicolas Sarkozy, the strong man of the governing UMP, with a resounding majority and a record turnout. They have chosen his vision of a radical revitalization of the Republic and a return to the nation's patriotic foundations. Sarkozy's convincing win is the triumph of political individualism over the rival worldview of the Socialist candidate Ségòlene Royal and her vision of a "participatory democracy" -- which too often got lost in vague affirmations.

What's clear about Sunday's vote is that it marks a turning point for France. After the gray era of 12 years of "Chiraquie," the citizens of France have backed the candidate who spoke of change and even a "break" with established tradition. With an eye to chronic unemployment, spiraling state debt, globalization and the disappearance of entire industry sectors to lower-wage countries, the French have put their money on a politician who has always vowed to radically and swiftly liquidate France's historic mortgage -- the civil servant apparatus, the privileges of teachers and social workers, the influence of the unions.

The message was able to capture voters' hearts because the malaise about stagnation, rising social tensions and the decline of the middle class can be felt not only in the cities but also in rural areas. In addition, Sarkozy was clever enough to combine his neoliberal regime of a drastic cure, which aims to jump-start an economic recovery with tax breaks for business and financial help for investors, with a soothing dose of protectionism. Taxes on unfair imports, aid for small and medium-sized companies and loans to help buy private homes -- together with loud (and expensive) promises for schools, research, hospitals, economic recovery, housing construction and the environment -- clearly constitute an irresistible recipe.

But wait a second. What about the past five years? Wasn't victor Sarkozy's party at the helm? Was the future president not already part of Chirac's cabinet, having served stints as finance, economics and interior minister? Was he not the third from the top in government? And did he not bear any responsibility whatsoever for his country's slow decline? That's actually the real artwork of this campaign: With an impressively professional strategy, "Team Sarkozy" succeeded in repackaging their man, a longtime minister, as a "newcomer," an outsider -- practically an opposition figure. Voters somehow forgot the fact that Sarkozy rose to the top of his party through political maneuvering and power plays and through his pacts with Chirac -- sometimes with him and sometimes against him -- and that he has been a part of the party apparatus throughout his career.

Balm for a nation's oppressed soul

Sarkozy succeeded in retouching his image by dipping his hand into the toolbox of America's neoconservatives. Many French fear they are being defenselessly hurdled towards a disquieting and potentially even dangerous future, and Sarkozy fed these fears by pledging a categorical restructuring of society and an ideological return to traditional values. And what about his populist commitment to morals, authority and responsibility, his references to the contributions the nation had made to the world and his vision of an internationally strengthened France? What perfect balm for a nation's oppressed soul.

The retouching also involved a clearly recognizable shift to the right: Without any shyness and a demagogic deftness Sarkozy was able -- already at the first round of voting -- to win over the voters of the extremist National Front (FN). With his thinly veiled attacks against immigrants from the North African Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa and his pledge to create a "Ministry for Immigration and National Identity," he made the right-wing slogans of FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen palatable. In doing so, he managed to hijack Le Pen's right-wing protest voters. Instead of voting for Le Pen this time, the French voted for a copy.

But the National Front leader isn't the only one who has seen his presidential ambitions terminated. Ségolène Royal also faces new challenges in her career as a leading Socialist politician. The PS candidate, who had viewed the éminence grises within her own camp with sharp condescension, now has to prepare herself to be politically lynched by the so-called "elephants." Instead of infighting, the Socialists are now faced with a great ideological rethink and a long-overdue reorientation to the social democratic model. One thing is certain: after the defeat in the contest for the Élysée Palace, any internal guerrilla warfare would lead to another hammering for the PS -- this time in the parliamentary elections on June 10.

Seductive power

Then Sarkozy would be the triumphant leader: There is the danger that, caught up on the wave of his election success, the future president would push through his reform project with his own particular abrasiveness. Constantly pushing the tempo, resistant to all advice, without paying any regard to a decimated opposition, without consulting civil society, without reassuring his grassroots. The office of president -- which, for a democracy, entails an extraordinary amount of power -- could certainly be seductive for a character like Sarkozy.

However, a brutish approach has the potential to do more than just spark explosive confrontations in the suburbs of the big cities -- it could also endanger the political consensus for Sarkozy's project. Will the current president, once known as "Bulldozer Chirac," now be followed by "Terminator Sarkozy"?

Until the parliamentary elections, the designated president will act cautiously and sensitively. If the UMP leader wants to convert his own very personal success into a win for the governing conservatives, then he will present himself to centrist voters -- who for the first time appeared in the running on the national level as a "Democratic Movement" under the defeated François Bayrou -- as a man who believes in balance and compromise.

The acid test of Sarkozy's presidential tolerance, of his political compassion -- perhaps even of his wisdom -- will only come in the fall. Sarkozy is too clever not to know that a month is a very long time in politics.


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