the right-wing offensive in france: sarkozy’s record so far

by Noé le Blanc

Ten years ago, Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to have lost much of his political credit and clout. Indeed, in the late nineties two major political defeats interrupted his previously steady rise among the ranks of French right-wing politicians. First, Sarkozy made the mistake of supporting Edouard Balladur in the 1995 French presidential race. Balladur was running as a right-wing challenger to the more “traditional” candidate of the right, Jacques Chirac, and he failed to make it to the second round of the election, which Chirac ultimately won.

Second, as leader of the RPR (the dominant right-wing party at the time), Sarkozy suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1999 European elections, his party reaping a mere 12% of the votes, less than the right-wing dissident “sovereignist” coalition, a group of (non-Front National) anti-EU politicians. Resigning from his position as head of the RPR, Sarkozy in fact disappeared entirely from the national political scene after this setback.

In 2002, however, thanks to a faithful local base, he was elected as an MP (winning 68.8% of the votes in the first round) for the newly created UMP party, and immediately chosen to be the interior minister in the newly formed government. He then rose to power extremely fast. By May 2005, he was both the president of the UMP party (winning 85% of the votes in the internal election) and head of an extended interior ministry, second only to the prime minister in the French government. This meant openly defying the authority of president Jacques Chirac, the man who had been the godfather of the French right for the previous twenty-five years at least. Chirac had warned in his presidential address to the nation not a year before (on the 14th July 2004) that he wouldn’t allow any leader of the UMP party to be part of the government. Sarkozy’s obvious contempt for the president’s threats thus demonstrated his position as the real boss of the newly unified French right as early as 2005.

With the birth of the UMP, Jacques Chirac had indeed finally realized his long time dream of uniting the French right (previously divided between the RPR and the more centrist UDF) behind him. The party had been created by Chirac to back his candidacy in the 2002 presidential election: its first name, “Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle” (Union for the Presidential Majority), clearly reflected this aim and the subordination of the party to the then president Chirac. But what was supposed to be Chirac’s own personal political party was taken over by his main challenger in less than three years’ time, a unified right (rebranded as the rather meaningless “Union pour un Mouvement Populaire”, Union for a Popular Movement) ironically proving to be just what Sarkozy needed to further his own ambitions.

A hate figure for the left and a hero for the right, Sarkozy soon began to dominate the national political scene entirely. Hardly a day passed without his name being mentioned in media headlines; one was no longer left or right-wing, but pro or anti-Sarkozy. 80% of French voters participated in the election which Sarkozy triumphantly won in may 2007 (winning 53% of the votes), arguably thanks to the elderly: the only age group to vote for him by a majority were people over 65 (75% of them). Two years after the “no” vote to the referendum on the European Constitutional Treatise had forced the government led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin to resign, and a year after massive anti-CPE demonstrations had signaled the political death of Raffarin’s successor Dominique de Villepin, the right’s political legitimacy seemed restored. The parliamentary election which immediately followed Sarkozy’s victory saw the UMP get 365 parliamentary seats out of 577, giving the new president near absolute political control at the national level.

The political atmosphere around the time of the election was incredibly charged. Such was the horror Sarkozy inspired on the left that in an effort to stop him, the highly sectarian Trotskyist “Lutte Ouvrière” party had called for the first time in its history to vote for a member of the socialist party, his opponent in the second round of the presidential election, Ségolène Royal. The right was correspondingly ecstatic about their champion’s success, to the point of political carelessness in fact: Sarkozy openly celebrated his victory with stars and billionaires in a famous Parisian five-star restaurant, then went on to spend three days of holidays on a yacht owned by the influential French billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

The hype around Sarkozy’s election was incredible on both sides (comparable maybe to the hysteria that followed Jean-Marie Le Pen making it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election), but was it justified? I will try to argue that probably not.

Since his election, Sarkozy has, of course, proven to be very generous with his supporters. As early as August 2007, the new administration pushed through a “fiscal package” worth 15 billion euros in tax breaks. For the rich and the very rich, this package included a lowering of the maximum income tax rate from 60% to 50% (the infamous “fiscal shield”, worth 500-800 million euros a year according to official numbers, 80% of this sum going to the richest 10% of beneficiaries), and a tax break on inherited wealth (2 billion euros). For big and small bosses, the package included three measures designed to facilitate workforce management: a tax break on overtime work (4-6 billion euros), one on student jobs (40 million euros), and a reform of the guaranteed minimum income making it financially more attractive for its recipients to accept part-time work (6-8 billion euros).

These celebratory gifts were soon followed by others: in July 2008 the Sarkozy administration passed a “Law for the modernization of the economy” which gave shopkeepers the right to organise an extra two weeks of sales at any time during the year, allowed for supermarkets up to 1000m² in size to be set up with no special authorization (the previous limit being 300m²), and created the fiscally advantageous “self-entrepreneur” status which enabled many companies to compel their employees to become their “own” bosses, thus forcing them to bear the consequences of any loss of activity. In February 2009 the “professional tax” (an important tax on companies) was eliminated, in March advertising was banned on public sector TV channels before 8 pm (a direct gift to TF1 and M6, the main private channels), and a law bringing down VAT tax from 19.6% to 5.5% in the bar/restaurant/catering sectors was adopted, while in July stores in “touristic” and “densely commercial” zones were allowed to open on Sundays… the list could go on.

All these measures however, while they have certainly accelerated the accumulation of wealth by the richest sectors of society (which it is the normal function of the economy to ensure), have essentially been electoral bribes or rewards, with only a superficial impact on France’s economic structure. Furthermore, these gifts have in no way been exceptional in terms of scale: in 2004-2006 for instance, much of the French highway system was privatized for a fraction of its real price, and a tax break on the profits made on the sale of securities was adopted (worth 20 billion euros for 2007-2009), both magnificent presents to the rich with which Sarkozy had little or nothing to do. For all Sarkozy’s unseemly arrogance and shows of confidence, sometimes bordering on outright recklessness – like when he tried to name his own 20 year old son at the head of an important state planning agency – his much decried politically-motivated handouts have more or less left the workings of the French economy unchanged.

Sarkozy’s administration’s attacks on the French welfare state (a more indirect form of gift to private power) may have been more significant: 100 000 civil servant jobs (out of around 5.5 million) have been eliminated since 2007 (a third of them teachers), in accordance with Sarkozy’s promise that he would only replace one out of two retiring civil servants. Along with real budget cutbacks, the reforms of the Sarkozy era have involved a reorganization of the power structure of certain state-run institutions, following the guidelines set out in June 2007 in the “Révision Générale des Politiques Publiques” (General Review of Public Policies). The basic aim of the “RGPP” is to cut public spending, first by merging various administrative bodies together and by eliminating lower-level/local administrative outlets and positions, and second by introducing private sector style management (using “performance” indicators, etc…) in the public sector.

The first (August 2007) and maybe most important reform adopted to date under the Sarkozy presidency concerns the French university system. In the name of “autonomy”, universities are now allowed to become the full owners of their campus buildings (previously owned by the state), and to sell them if they choose. They are allowed and encouraged to create “foundations” in an effort to collect money from the private sector (this hasn’t been much of a success so far). The number of members of the Board of each university has been slashed by half (from 60 to 30), with reinforced powers for the president of the university. The president, who no longer has to be an academic, is wholly responsible for managing university staff (he can hire and fire personnel or hand out wage bonuses) including careers. Furthermore, universities now have an increased control over their budget, previously more directly managed by the state. This presumably allows them to cut personnel and maintenance costs more freely. The point seems to be the creation of universities as independent financial units, which can then be encouraged (by rewarding universities which meet government targets) to become “self-financing” (which is what is meant by “autonomous”). So far, around 60% of French universities have implemented the reform.

This reform is generally seen as paving the way to the privatisation of French universities. Efforts have been made to introduce private sector style dynamics and mentality inside the academic sphere. A measure of “competitiveness” between universities was introduced in 2008, when 250 thousand euros were attributed to each of a dozen “deserving” universities in a (so-called) effort to create an elite university system. (However, to be “deserving” explicitly meant to implement the government “autonomy” reform with zeal. Thus, interestingly although perhaps unsurprisingly, the government money in this case was more of a bribe to get its reform passed than an actual attempt to create a “competitive” elite French university system.) Furthermore, since 2009, 20% of the universities’ budget (attributed by the Ministry for higher education) depends on “performance” indicators such as student success at exams.

The hospital system has also been subject to a reform combining budget cuts with a heightened concentration of decision-making power. In June 2009 was voted the “Hôpital, Patients, Santé, Territoires” (Hospital, Patients, Health, Territories) law which created special regional agencies headed by the “préfet” (prefect, i.e. a representative of the government) of each region. These agencies are responsible for controlling the finances of individual hospitals in order to make them “profitable” (instead of running a “deficit”). They also have an important say in the nomination of hospital directors, whose powers have been extended. As a result, around 180 surgery blocks and maternities are threatened with being closed down because they deal with less than 1500 patients a year, and are thus deemed too small to be maintained.

Major “restructurations” have also been inflicted upon the justice system, with the planned closing of 400 smaller law courts before 2011, and (perhaps more surprisingly) upon the French army, which is due to lose 54 000 personnel (out of 320 000) before 2015, with 80 army bases being shut.

The Sarkozy administration no doubt expected these reforms to be resisted. An effort was even made in August 2007 by the government to prevent social disturbances by passing a “minimum service law” aimed at maintaining a certain level of service even during strikes. However this law (which doesn’t apply to public transport, among other important sectors of the economy) merely states that would-be strikers have to declare themselves as such to their managers or bosses 48 hours before the strike, so as to theoretically enable the bosses to fill in the missing workers’ positions with non-strikers. How and if this happens in practice strictly depends on the power relations engaged in each particular strike and workplace, but globally the effect of the law on strikes has been low.

Each of the different reforms was indeed met with some measure of resistance. Various protest marches were organized by hospital personnel (mostly in April 2009) and led by Bernard Debré, both an important doctor and a prominent UMP MP. In July 2009, 25 of the most prestigious French doctors signed a “call” against the hospital reform. Up to half of French universities went on strike for several weeks at the end of 2007, and again at the beginning of 2009, when part of the Sorbonne was even occupied for a night. The announced closing of courts and of army bases has provoked outcries from local authorities and even among certain MPs belonging to the UMP, who fear they might lose some of their voters.

However, all these reforms are a continuation of policies initiated earlier in the decade or even before, and as such aren’t specifically “sarkozist”. Both hospitals and higher education have seen the implementation of major reforms since 2002, and the “rationalization” of French state institutions (meaning the closing of local outlets and facilities) has been an ongoing process for at least the last 20 years, during which countless post offices and schools have been shut down, especially in sparsely populated rural areas. Furthermore, there have been no major privatizations under Sarkozy, like the opening up to private investment of the capital of France Telecom in 1997-98 or of the energy giant EDF-GDF in 2006. It seems thus fair to conclude that Sarkozy’s economic policies have been in no way exceptional so far, i.e. have been more or less what any president would have done, or at the very least in the range of what any president would have done. In terms of economic reforms, Sarkozy is neither a boogeyman nor a hero.

The most defining feature of Sarkozy’s reign might hence be its somewhat authoritarian streak. Loud displays of power and authority are a trademark of Sarkozy-style politics. The formation of the government led by prime minister François Fillon right after Sarkozy’s election was quite tellingly a celebration of sheer lust for power, as several members of the socialist party (including the prominent ex-health and social affairs minister Bernard Kouchner) joined the ranks of the government. This so-called “ouverture” (opening) policy, which angered many on the right and was quite revolutionary in its own fashion, was a particularly crafty way for Sarkozy both to undermine the socialist left and to surround himself with individuals who would be absolutely docile, since they owed him everything. The choice to include three women of “immigrant” (i.e. African) origin in the government (including Justice minister Rachida Dati) also had the effect of blurring the left/right divide and of ensuring the presence of loyal recruits among Sarkozy’s closest collaborators.

The new Sarkozy administration was quick to provide a brutal show of power by targeting the weakest elements of French society, i.e. immigrants or French nationals of immigrant origin. One of the most clownish but also revolting moves of Sarkozy after his election was the creation of a “Ministry for national identity”, a clear gesture towards his electorate on the far right (the recent cabinet reshuffle has in fact suppressed this ministry). This was followed by the organization of a “great debate on national identity” which was launched in October 2009 but was quickly denounced as politically-motivated hogwash and failed to spark any interest whatsoever on behalf of the general population.

Sarkozy’s anti-immigrant stance hasn’t just been a matter of talk and political maneuvering however. His administration’s recent attempt to hit on the Roma community was just the last of a long series of acts aimed at harassing migrants. Sarkozy’s years in power have been marred by a number of horror stories involving “sans-papiers” throwing themselves out of windows (and dying) to escape the police. Fighting “illegal” immigration has from the beginning been a centerpiece of sarkozist politics, an “illegality” which harsher and harsher laws have largely contributed to manufacturing.

Indeed, under Sarkozy’s rule, three major immigration reforms (2003, 2006, 2007) have made it harder and longer for immigrants to obtain papers, to have their families join them, to obtain the French nationality thanks to marriage ; a three year “competency and talents” card delivered to migrants with specific skills deemed important to the French economy has been created. The stated aim of these reforms is to enforce a “chosen” immigration over an “inflicted” one.

An additional law voted last month (October 2010) has introduced heavier prison sentences for illegal immigrants, lengthened the legal duration of their detention, made it harder for judges to oppose expulsions and created a new penalty whereby foreigners evicted from France will be banned from reentering any EU state for five years (following EU immigration policy guidelines). This most recent reform also carries a very symbolic measure: people who have had the French nationality for less than ten years can now be stripped of it in case they… shoot a policeman. The case has never actually happened, but this doesn’t really matter since the point is to convey the impression that the French republic is under some sort of attack by dark-skinned foreigners, an idea which constitutes the very logic of all Sarkozy’s immigration reforms. The recent banning of the burqa in public spaces is another symptom of this frame of mind.

This flood of restrictive legislation has been accompanied by a number of more or less token gestures, like the closing down of the infamous immigrant shelter facilities of Sangatte (near Calais) in 2003, followed in 2009 by the destruction of the makeshift camp (nicknamed “the jungle”) which had taken its place.

The general crackdown on France’s immigrant population, as symbolized by the objective touted by the Sarkozy administration of evicting 25 000 illegal aliens a year, has sparked a certain amount of opposition. Maybe the most active and widespread movement is RESF “Reseau pour une Éducation Sans Frontieres”, Network for an Education Without Borders) which was created in 2004 as a reaction against (amongst other things) policemen going into schools to hunt for the children of “sans papiers”. This network has drawn into militancy many people who were previously politically inactive. The “sans papiers” themselves have been extremely active, organizing numerous lengthy strikes and occupations, like the occupation of the Paris Labour exchange (from which they were finally evicted by CGT goons) for over a year in 2008-2009.

“Tough on immigration”, Sarkozy has  also of course been keen to appear as “tough on crime”, since the two are more or less the same thing for a majority of his electorate. Sarkozy’s most (in)famous declaration, the one he will probably be most remembered for, was his promise (staged for the camera) to a woman living in the “banlieue” (outskirts of Paris) that he would “rid” the streets of the “scum” (“racaille”) which roamed them with a high-pressure cleaner (“un Kärcher”).

As an interior minister, Sarkozy oversaw the introduction of tasers and flash grenades in the French police, as well as the development of open-street CCTV in towns and cities. Significantly, from 1996 to 2007, the number of offences of “outrage à agent” (“disrespect towards a policeman”) jumped by 80%. This isn’t because the French population has become more rebellious, but is the result of a conjunction of two factors : first, policemen can get from 100 to 500 euros from the person who they claim has “disrespected” them if they win the case, so many policemen use this to improve their pay; second, pressure has been put on police brigades to “prove” their usefulness by providing statistics which show a high level of “activity”: thus arresting and charging people for no reason makes for good statistics. This 80% jump is thus a sign of the times, i.e. of heightened police impunity and of increased bureaucratic/managerial control of public institutions.

Sarkozy’s “tough on crime” politics have produced two significant penal reforms. Interestingly, both reforms are an attack on the very principle on which both the justice apparatus and the whole social order itself are based on, i.e. individual responsibility.

In 2007, mandatory sentencing was introduced for repeat offenders: offenders convicted twice for the same offence must now automatically serve an minimum sentence of 1 year if the offence was punishable by a maximum of three years, of 2 years for a maximum of 5, etc. The automatic nature of these sentences first dispossesses the judge of his right to freely make penal decisions, and second doesn’t allow for the modulation of the sentence according to the “responsibility” of the offender, which is de facto deemed irrelevant.

Furthermore, in 2008 was adopted a law permitting the indefinite continuation of a prison sentence (“rétention de sûreté”, security detention) for murderers, rapists, etc, deemed to be still “dangerous”. The justice minister at the time, Rachida Dati, famously said during the parliamentary debates around this law that she “couldn’t see why someone should be released from prison just because he had served his sentence.” Of course the idea that you can keep someone locked up not for things he or she has done but for what he or she might do negates the very principle of individual responsibility: people are put away because they belong to a certain category of population rather than because of the acts that are attributed to them personally. (You could argue that since this is the case anyway, not in principle but in reality, at least the system is honest in this case.)

While life has become tougher for “dangerous” immigrants and criminals, efforts have been made to rid the rich and privileged of their legal problems. A major battle has for instance just been fought (and apparently won) over Sarkozy’s attempt to suppress the “juge d’instruction”, the only judge able to independently investigate cases of financial and political corruption. However, big steps towards making France a banana republic have also been taken by the government without meeting any significant opposition: for example, the severe cuts made to regional “chambres des comptes”, (institutions responsible for controlling local public spending) and their increased control by the national chamber (the “cour des comptes”).

Sarkozy’s muscle-flexing has also quite naturally been directed at the media, which he has understandably been keen to control, although 90% of the French media belong to four of his close friends (Martin Bouygues, Arnaud Lagardère, Serge Dassault and Vincent Bolloré). For instance, and quite strikingly, immediately after Sarkozy’s election, his chief of staff became at his behest the news editor in chief (and so second in command) of TF1, the most viewed TV channel in France, which is privately owned and so theoretically independent from the state. As for the state channels France 2 and France 3, Sarkozy modified their statutes so that their director would be chosen directly by the president, i.e. by himself.

Journalists have regularly been removed or threatened according to Sarkozy’s wishes, like the head of Paris-Match, a tabloid magazine, who had to leave after publishing pictures of Sarkozy’s ex-wife (Cecilia) with her lover, or more recently with the sack of three radio comedian/journalists in a row from France Inter (the leading “serious” radio), basically accused of making fun of Sarkozy or of members of his government. Furthermore, just recently was revealed the fact that the president and his closest collaborators have illegally asked phone companies for extensive recordings of phone conversations between journalists and various influent people. (This is a traditional thing for French presidents to do, at least since François Mitterrand, who notoriously had dozens of people listened to in order to avoid important matters of state being leaked to the general public, such as the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter or that he had prostate cancer.)

Freedom of expression in general has suffered under Sarkozy, with more and more citizens convicted simply for making biting comments or jokes against the president or members of the government: a man holding a sign saying “Casse-toi, pauvre con Sarkozy” (fuck off, Sarkozy, you wanker”) which was quoting from Sarkozy himself (who actually said this on camera to a man who refused to shake his hand) was convicted for disrespect towards the president, as were people who made and put up posters which parodied Front National electoral posters but had Sarkozy’s face replacing Jean Marie Le Pen’s (implying that their policies were the same), as was a person who in an email to the minister for national identity suggested that Sarkozy’s policies towards immigrants were remindful of the Vichy government period…

I will end here this brief summary of what has happened in France under Sarkozy. Needless to say I have left many things out: a grand summit on the environment, named “Grenelle de l’environnement” (after the Grenelle agreements which were signed after the revolts of May 1968) which has amounted to nothing; the setting up of a grand (and anti-US) “Mediterranean Union”, which includes EU countries as well as Maghreb countries, and has amounted to nothing; a 44 day long general strike in Guadeloupe and Martinique which achieved a significant improvement of living conditions for the islands’ inhabitants; Sarkozy’s administration’s answer to the financial crisis,  which was quite conservative (financial support of banks, government spending on housing and infrastructure, tax breaks for companies, petty cash handouts for the poor and unemployed so as to stave off outright revolts); selling nuclear plants to General Kadhafi, who came to Paris to sign the agreement and set up his tent on the presidential palace lawn; a law which states that only unions which get a minimum of 10% of the votes in professional elections are allowed to have delegates; a law (called HADOPI) which criminalises peer-to-peer downloading….

The lesson seems to be however that although Sarkozy has indeed followed quite a hard right-wing agenda, he hasn’t been able to reshape France in the way some people expected he might. He has governed France more or less like his predecessors have done, which he arguably couldn’t help but doing given the institutional requisites and constraints of the position. Change for the worse doesn’t happen in a day, or in a presidency. This is also probably true of change for the better.