Sarkozy Closes in on his Goal Ambition and Honesty on the French Campaign Trail

By Ullrich Fichtner

Part 2: Slaughtering Sheep in the Bathtub Is not French

Described thusly, his platform sounds no different from the current European mainstream -- but word choice is key. Sarkozy is incapable of delivering sober, subdued speeches. Instead, there is always something pressing about his sentences, some important point or catchphrase he seeks to convey. This is why he says things like: "Anyone who believes that women have no rights, who believes that slaughtering sheep in the bathtub is part of his culture, is unwelcome in our country."

To those who accuse him of sounding like Jean-Marie Le Pen, the godfather of the extremist right wing, Sarkozy responds that he refuses to strike correct sentences from his speeches merely because the wrong people are using them. And to those journalists who accuse him of fishing for voters along the right-wing fringe, Sarkozy poses one of his feared rhetorical questions: "And you? Don't you broadcast for the right-wing radicals? Or are they are not permitted to buy your paper?"

Sarkozy's profile, and his image as a hardliner, became more pronounced in June of 2005, during the riots in the Paris suburbs. One day after a child had been caught and shot between rival drug gangs in La Courneuve, Sarkozy said to bystanders: "We will clean up the neighborhood with a pressure washer, you can count on that." During a visit to Argenteuil, a woman called out to him: "When will you finally liberate us from this riff-raff?" Sarkozy responded: "You've had enough of this riff-raff? Then let's see how we can rid ourselves of it!"

Riff-raff and pressure washer aren't exactly the kinds of expressions one expects to hear from a statesman, especially one who represents the cultured French nation. Sarkozy's words and actions caused a great deal of uproar at the time, and he was blamed for the intensification of the subsequent unrest. But what the Paris media declined to notice at the time was that, according to the opinion polls, almost two-thirds of the French people agreed with Sarkozy and even approved of his choice of words.

Outdated economic structures

Even in the election campaign, Sarkozy doesn't avoid using the word "racaille," or "riff-raff." Although he no longer wears it like a chip on his shoulder, as he did for a long time, he never hides from it. "What do you call people who set a bus full of people going to work on fire? What's the word for those who sell drugs to children? I say they are riff-raff, and I stand by my words." His words are met with loud, enthusiastic applause, especially in the provinces.

But the controversy over words and immigration is secondary in the broader scheme of things. France has bigger problems. The structure of the economy is outdated, the organization of the welfare state is decrepit and the tax burden enormous. Sarkozy wants to prescribe an era of change to the country. He wants what he calls "rupture" -- an end to the stagnation which has characterized the last few years in office of his former mentor and current president, Jacques Chirac. Whether it's a discussion of the European Union in Strasbourg, of development policy in Réunion in the French Antilles, or of immigration in the Paris suburbs, Sarkozy is constantly throwing new barbs into the debate and coming up with ideas on how to modernize France. In doing so he is trying to broaden the conservative movement's base and modernize the right -- and he is keen to deprive the left of its role as social opinion leader. He has managed to make their issues his own and address topics that a conservative was traditionally not supposed to talk about.

Sarkozy does it with gusto. He is almost unique among politicians in his willingness to tackle the issue of unrest in the suburbs surrounding France's major cities. He is unrelenting when he lists the problems associated with immigration. And it is Sarkozy, not the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, who speaks most clearly and convincingly about the decline in buying power, about the problems of the working poor, about the demise of traditional industries, the financial distress of small businesses and the problems in the employment market. Sarkozy, it seems, has no qualms about cherry-picking these traditionally "leftist" issues.

Labor is the key concept of his campaign. He speaks of a France "that gets up early in the morning and works hard," he campaigns against the 35-hour work week and against the retirement age of 60. He wants to see student jobs exempted from the minimum wage requirement. He wants overtime to be tax-free, to reduce the size of the government bureaucracy, to relax protections against job termination, to abolish the inheritance tax and reorganize the job placement system. Blood, sweat and tears are his stock in trade.

Neo-liberal with a French passport

From a Western European standpoint, many aspects of his program seem heavily social-liberal, some borrowed from the British "third way" and others from the reforms put in place by Germany's governing coalition under former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But France is an idiosyncratic country and compared to the rest of Europe, France's entire political structure is shifted substantially to the left. Which is why Sarkozy's foes can get away with branding him as an American "neo-liberal with a French passport."

What Parisians would call right wing would easily pass as centrist in Berlin. Many of the leftist splinter parties fielding candidates in the presidential election would undoubtedly be the subject of investigation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency. The same applies to most trade unions: Indeed, in France, the discussion of global problems still seems to be operating on the assumption that the Berlin Wall never came down, and that Mao is still running the show in China; it is a country where communist social structures are discussed and history is still treated as a class struggle.

Sarkozy, who sticks out in this milieu like a sore thumb, must sell himself as a savior and leader who can take France into a new era. He banks on the notion that most Frenchmen are tired of the old struggles, that ideological battles are passé and that many want "rupture." But he also has to reach and inspire the French people to get their vote, which explains why his dark analyses of France's current state always turn into a hymn for the nation and its future. The refrain of that song is the slogan of Sarkozy's campaign: "Together everything is possible."

More than just a slogan, it's a principle Sarkozy has consistently applied in his own life. From the beginning of his political career, he has formed teams, established committees and set up networks. His address book is considered one of the thickest in all of France. He owes his gradual rise to power to personal contacts. As a young man he asked Charles Pasqua, who would later become a notorious interior minister, to be the best man at his wedding to his first wife. The richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, was a witness at his second wedding, and Sarkozy was a witness to the marriage of Claude Chirac, the daughter and closest confidante of the current president.

Cliques and old boy networks

Such connections pay off in France, where power is dependent to a large degree on who you know. Sarkozy is close friends with the heads of the major media conglomerates and television networks, and his influence extends into their editorial offices. When Sarkozy's wife Cécilia, herself a darling of the media, was pictured together with a lover on the cover of Paris Match in August 2005, the magazine's editor-in-chief was let go. All of which makes Sarkozy's claim that cliques and old boy networks will not be part of an administration under his leadership difficult to believe. In fact, Sarkozy himself -- and his entire career, for that matter -- would be completely unthinkable without them.

In retrospect, each of his steps seems masterfully planned, as if Sarkozy had already known by his mid-twenties where his life would take him. But then, as his career progressed, his was repeatedly faced with the unpredictable, with events that gave him the chance to demonstrate instinctively the kind of tough political animal he truly is.

One of his first opportunities to shine came in May 1993, when a hostage crisis captivated all of France. Sarkozy had only been a cabinet minister for six weeks when, in a kindergarten in his city of Neuilly, a crazed computer scientist took 21 children and one teacher hostage and demanded a ransom of 100 million francs. When the man threatened to blow up the school, his threat was taken seriously and the police wanted to storm the building. But Sarkozy, who was present at the scene, took over the negotiation.

Over the course of 46 hours Sarkozy, his shirt wet with perspiration, walked into the kindergarten seven times to negotiate with the hostage-taker. He spoke with the man, calmed him down, promised him the ransom money, gradually managed to secure the freedom of all the hostages and even offered himself as a hostage. In the end, all of the children and the teacher were saved and special forces shot the hostage-taker. The French had gotten their first taste of Nicolas Sarkozy -- as a young and courageous mayor and minister, and as someone prepared to do anything necessary to achieve his goals.

A deserving veteran of politics

Similar scenes repeated themselves during the unrest in and around major French cities and during the riots in the suburbs in the fall of 2005. Although Sarkozy was no longer viewed as a hero at the time, the French saw him as a man of action who spent time at the scene of the riots and his nights at police stations, proving himself master of the situation. Meanwhile, the other leaders of the right and the left sat in their offices, commenting on the events from afar.

It is as if Sarkozy has been campaigning for years, or perhaps his entire life -- as if the goal of everything he has done has been to move into the Elysée Palace one day as master of the house.

To reach that goal, he will have to focus on yet another campaign tour, his 12th or 13th such drive. He has traveled the country with prime ministers, with candidates, presidents and losers. Sarkozy, at 52, is a deserving veteran of politics.

He knows the country, every one of its regions and Departments, and all of its cities -- and he has heard all of its problems. During his appearances, it sometimes seems as though he believed he had all the solutions at his fingertips. It is precisely at these moments that he seems uncanny, this man who is so convinced that he is familiar with the lives of his voters and speaks the language of the people. His message is: I'm ready. But the question now is whether France is ready for him? For Nicolas Sarkozy, it's a matter of victory or defeat as he nears the finish line of his lifelong Tour de France.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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