Tamper with France at your peril?
I watched him up close in a theatre in Paris on Sunday night, as the results flooded in from the first round vote.
France’s President had lost his usual electricity. Unplugged, a gloomy hangdog weariness hung about him. His crowd of supporters cheered him to the rafters, but it was as if they were trying to pump up a balloon with a hole in it and an unstoppable leak.
It was the same watching him outside his campaign headquarters yesterday.
Every smile was so forced it could have cracked a camera lens. The President’s campaign slogan, “La France Forte“, is one the candidate himself seems to have forgotten.
Sarkozy, nicknamed by a friend of mine as “Monsieur Rolex”, has made mistakes for sure. Last week he apologised for not bringing “solemnity” to his role as head of state. Now the man once famous for his “bling” nouveau riche-ness dresses for every appearance as if about to attend a funeral; the funeral perhaps for his own political career.
But how galling for the Gaul it must be for a man elected five years ago on the Obama-like promise of change – “la rupture”, he called it – to see the same mantra now stolen so successfully by the Socialist opposition.
I read somewhere that the French have a habit of voting for change and then doing all they can to stop it. At any rate, this is the fate which seems to have befallen Nicolas Sarkozy.
His apparent march to the guillotine is on the charge of changing France for the worse. Raising the state pension entitlement age to 62; tampering with the 35 hour working week. “He makes us work on Sundays,” as one outraged voter put it to me last week. Ooh la la.
And though Francois Hollande cites the French Revolution in his stirring campaign video and tries to use the word “changement” at almost every opportunity, unwrap the revolutionary packaging and you find a promise to preserve la Belle France, to put things back to the way they were.
“He will return us to black and white television,” was how one Sarkozy supporter described it.
Going forwards in order to go backwards has long been a theme of French politics. A journalist friend of mine wrote to me last week recalling her experience covering a French election during the 1980s.
“I was astonished at how much baloney about restoring ‘la gloire de la France’ the candidates talked on the stump,” she told me.
Sarkozy too is a preservationist at heart, most obviously in his pledge to halve immigration, but his economics seem pretty entrenched too. Changing France too little – not too much – may prove his greatest mistake.
They used to call him “Sarko l’Americain”, but I’ve noticed that they don’t do that so often any more. For though this country remains an easy place in which to spend money, it also remains resolutely unAmerican and a place in which making money is hard.
State spending still accounts for 56 per cent of gross domestic product. France gave us the words “laissez faire”, but its economy often seems anything but.
Unemployment stands at a 12 year high of almost ten percent, and in areas such as the post-industrial North East it is much higher than that.
No wonder there is a backlash against fiscal austerity and a fear that this will make a bad situation worse. No wonder political extremists from both Left and Right are riding high. Almost half of Sunday’s 80 per cent turnout did not vote for either Sarkozy or Hollande. Given the disillusionment with mainstream politics, it is a feather in the cap of French democracy that they turned out at all.
Yesterday I interviewed Wallerand de Saint-Juste, the spokesman for France’s National Front. I joked afterwards that his name sounded like a smelly French cheese, and Mr de Saint-Juste does indeed speak for a heartland steeped in tradition, where voters feel their way of life is threatened not just by 5 million Muslims, but by the seemingly unending Euro crisis.
“You in England took the very good decision not to join the Euro,” Mr de Saint-Juste told me. “You English are so much more pragmatic than we French or Latins, but here talking about leaving the Euro is taboo.”
It is this Euro crisis which could finish off Nicolas Sarkozy. It was once said that Napoleon’s advance on Russia was defeated by Generals January and February. In Sarkozy’s case he is threatened by Generals Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Holland – where leaders of all political colours have fallen in response to a sharp economic downturn.
France’s Far Right leadership is urging its historic 17.9 per cent slice of the vote to abstain from the second round vote, arguing not unreasonably that there is little in their programmes to tell Hollande or Sarkozy apart.
Both have a “tax and spend” approach to preserving the uniqueness of France, though there’s no question who would rather tax and spend more. Yet should Hollande win as expected at the end of next week, then pressure from Angela Merkel, the financial markets and France’s own Ministry of Finance could curb the Socialist impulse towards more state largesse. Mr Hollande is often described as looking like a boring bank manager; perhaps he will prove to be a good one.
And if more austerity becomes unavoidable, his supporters could be left sorely disappointed. Outside a jubilant Socialist Party headquarters on Sunday night, they played a clip of Susan Boyle singing “I dreamed a dream” on a giant video screen. And who wants to be woken up from a happy dream?
The France Hollande might inherit is still the world’s fifth biggest economy, and it would be churlish of anyone to underestimate that achievement, which thumbs its nose at the Anglo Saxon way of doing business. Britons flock to France because it has preserved much of what we in Britain have lost.
Maybe Sarkozy will bounce back and buck the European trend. After all, his first round performance was better than almost every pollster predicted, and his country may decide to stick with the devil it knows. But whatever the outcome, my conclusion stays the same: tamper with France at your peril, but tamper with France you must.
Follow Jonathan Rugman on Twitter: @jrug