The bad economy in France and outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to do a stimulus program, preferring instead “austerity,” were the primary reasons he lost the election to Socialist Francois Hollande. That and Sarkozy really is an annoying, strutting peacock who wore out his political welcome among voters.
But some of the margin of his defeat came from his pandering to the discourse of the French anti-immigrant far right, which he did especially vocally after he was forced into a run-off against Hollande. Sarkozy said there are too many “foreigners” (he meant immigrants) in France, that police should have greater leeway to shoot fleeing suspects, that the far right are upstanding citizens. He even talked about “people who look Muslim.”
Many observers in France argue that Sarkozy stole so many lines from the soft-fascist National Front of Marine LePen that he mainstreamed it, and made it impossible for the Gaullists of the Union for a Popular Movement (Sarkozy’s party, French acronym UMP) to argue that LePen and her followers should be kept out of national government because they were too extreme. (The irony is that Sarkozy himself is the son of a Hungarian father and his mother was mixed French Catholic and Greek Jewish; and he postured as Ur-French!)
Sarkozy tried to depict the French Left as so woolly-headed and multi-cultural that they were coddling and even fostering the rise of a threatening French Muslim fundamentalism that menaced secular, republican values. The infamous daily hour set aside by the mayor at a swimming pool in Lille for a few years for Muslim women to swim without men present was presented as emblematic of this threat. But it was all polemics. Some Gaullist mayors did the same thing, and for longer.
And, Sarkozy showed much less dedication to Third-Republic-style militant secularism than most Socialists (only 10 percent of the French go to mass regularly and almost all vote for Sarkozy’s UMP, so the Catholic religious right is his constituency). But, he did support the Swiss ban on minarets and he banned public Muslim prayer in France, and the wearing of the burqa’ full veil (popular mainly in the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and worn by like 4 women in France aside from wealthy wives of emirs in France on shopping sprees).
Sarkozy’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and punitive laws in the end drove centrist Francois Bayrou to repudiate him. Bayrou, leader of the Democratic Movement party, had run for president on a platform of reducing the national debt and reining in public spending, and was more center-right than center. He got about 9% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election.
Late last week, Bayrou made the astonishing announcement that Sarkozy’s obsession with “frontiers” just seemed to him a betrayal of French values, and that he was throwing his support to Hollande. Sarkozy’s political platform, he thundered, “is violent” and is “in contradiction with our values, but also those of Gaullism [the mainstream French right] as well as contradicting the values of the republican and social Right.” I am not and never will be, he said, a man of the left. He said he was sure he would be upbraiding Hollande for his spendthrift ways. But on the issue of republican values, he had to back Hollande.
Although he left them free to vote for whomever they liked, Bayrou threw about a third of his centrists’ vote to Hollande, or roughly 3% of those who went to the polls in the first round. Hollande won this round by 4%.
Only about a third of France’s roughly 4.5 million persons of Muslim descent (mainly North and West Africans) identify as Muslims. Only about 10 percent of Muslims are said to vote. So French Muslims are not flexing their electoral muscles yet in a meaningful way. Probably many more secular French voted against Sarkozy because of his odious language about immigrants than did Muslim-heritage French, in absolute numbers.
Sarkozy, by embracing the noxious language of hatred of immigrants and fear-mongering about secular Socialists spreading Muslim theocracy in the villages of France, failed to convince the hard right to vote for him but managed to alienate the center. Even MPs in his own party began speaking out against his having gone too far.
Of course, the kind of violent, anti-immigrant, and Muslim-hating language Sarkozy used is par for the course in the GOP in the US today. But aside from some Libertarians such as Ron Paul, where are the mainstream centrist Republicans who will openly denounce it? Who among Republicans recognizes that the sorts of things Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney say about a monolithic Muslim Caliphate menace are violent and contradictory to the values of the American Republic. Not to mention the things many of them say about Latino immigrants. Where is our Francois Bayrou?