On election day in Paris, Place de la Bastille (home of the left) was full and Place de la Concorde (home of the right) was empty. As sure a sign as any that the Socialist Party was about to win the presidency, as it went on to do. Francois Hollande is the new president of France.
Why did Nicolas Sarkozy lose? He started remarkably well only five short years ago. Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign captured a mood in France for a “rupture” from its own economic and social model. France was bored with itself, worried about its economy, tired of riots and debates about accommodating immigrants, and wanted to get on board the global economic bubble then roaring. Sarkozy offered a “hyper-presidency” that would deal with all of those issues and many more.
Elected, Sarkozy showed himself to be a canny political card player. There was, for example, “l’ouverture” — Sarkozy’s carefully targeted effort to dismantle the Socialist Party by recruiting some of its brightest lights into Sarkozy’s new right-wing government as ministers and senior officials. This cut the Socialist Party’s leadership off at the knees, demoralized its membership, appropriated some of its best talent, reframed Sarkozy as a big-tent president who would govern for all the French — and left him perfectly free to pursue his policies exactly as he intended to do, validated by some of his most dangerous opponents. Demonstrating, as has occurred many times in politics in many countries before and since (in Britain, in the fate of the Liberal Democrats, for example), that weaving opponents into your team is an excellent way to defeat them.
However, the collapse of the world financial bubble and then the socialization of its losses (one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich in world history) removed the raison d’être of the Sarkozy presidency. In this, it can be said that France dodged a bullet. The country was lucky that it elected Sarkozy relatively late in the era of the madness of the rentiers. He didn’t have time to turn France into, say, Ireland or Iceland. And so France was spared the worst. Sarkozy then attempted to reframe himself as the opposite of himself, but it never rang true. He was never a credible “social market” builder.
Meanwhile France’s social tensions remain unaddressed, as the rise of the National Front demonstrates. And meanwhile, the currently fashionable European response to recession — deflationary fiscal policies that make recessions worse — failed to inspire the French.
All of this being so, it is a testament to Sarkozy’s political skills that he clawed back in the last days of this campaign as well as he did.
France has now given itself a “normal” president who is much better equipped to deal with the economic and social realities facing the country. Francois Hollande has a mandate to end the idea in France that the poor are fed by feeding the wealthy. He has a mandate to look for answers to Europe’s economic crisis that don’t simply repeat the errors of the 1930s. And he has a mandate to work for social peace — with a big warning about what lies ahead for France if he fails. The populist right will be making its own play to replace Sarkozyism in the French parliamentary elections later this spring.
One last note about this election. As QMI’s Francois Bugingo recently reported, the French Socialist Party has a historical relationship with the Parti Québécois. In April 2011, Francois Holland’s campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, led a delegation to a PQ convention to re-affirm what Mr. Bugingo refers to in his article as “the traditional relations with Quebec.” On the other hand there is, to understate, not much in common between this new French president and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.