Sarkozy’s Loss in Part due to his Islamophobia

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?

9 Responses

  1. One of the biggest problems in Europe is the Jewish population, normally the voice of reason in equality measures, chooses to encourage and contribute to this dialogue. There have been grass roots movements, but for the most part all the press I read still feeds into the deep racism of the right. Don’t they understand that hate breeds more hate, and once the right-wing is done with the Muslims (who are not a global minority like us) they will move onto the Jewish population (more empowered than ever)? The same neo-Nazis that they pander to now in order to increase the racial divide, they give power to. And this power will be turned on them eventually. As an American who is Jewish, I always try and make an effort to defend – or humanize – Muslims when possible. Often I get weird looks and if they ask for an explanation I either quote Niemöller’s “first they came for…” or Chris Rock’s hilarious take on the logical conclusion of ignorant patriotism, “I’m an American!”

    Either way, I think most understand. I hope American Jews don’t go to the dark side as in Europe. I realize we have our extremists, but for the most part, we’re still sane. But lately, I’ve noticed a gradual shift towards paranoia even here. And I don’t like it.

  2. Juan

    Yes definitely, Sarkozy tried to outbit the Front National on security and anti-immigration issues. The strategy was pushed by Sarkozy’s advisor Patrick Buisson, a member of the traditional extreme right (Catholic pro-Charles Maurras). The strategy worked in 2007 – Sarkozy gained about 70% of the Front National’s vote in the second round but Le Pen had scored only about 10% of the votes in the first round then. This time around, the strategy did not work. Many FN voters (more than a third) abstained instead of voting for Sarkozy. That being said, Bayrou’s calls did not convince a majority of his supporters. Sarkozy gained 41% of Baryou’s voters, Hollande only 29%, 30^ abstained.
    Sarkozy’s strategy to chase after the FN vote so blatantly before and after the first round – while denying the party any governmental access or any electoral agreement for the legislative elections next June, provoked tensions in the UMP. I would like to believe that the UMP would draw the same analysis that you are. Or the party may choose to abandon its Chirac-established strategy of refusing to sign electoral agreements with the FN in local and parliamentary elections whereby the two parties will agree to support each other in separate electoral districts instead of competing against each other.

  3. I hope this is the beginning or a worldwide pushback from whatever is left of the left, whether in France or in Greece.

    All we need now is the same renascence of the American Left, one not beset with manipulated fear and able to make the Democratic Party a bit more receptive to its concerns.

    • I fear the key to everything is Germany. While its internal social and worker policies are far more progressive than America, Britain or the failed Bushite “New Europe”, its success has allowed it to pursue a strong Euro which punishes less productive Euro economies that provide the same benefits. If the Euro were controlled by democracy rather than German bankers, it would be different. But once the German people bought into the idea that their greedy bankers were somehow “protecting” them from the lazy, swarthy Mediterranean types, they rallied to Merkel’s agenda to starve and crush southern Europe the way America crushed Latin America (see Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”).

      This is a tragic victory of narrow tribalism over class solidarity. Once our capitalists Shock-Doctrined Latin America and shipped our jobs over there, they started to do the same to us. Do German workers really think once Italians work for starvation wages, their own jobs are safe?

  4. In light of my previous comment, a Representative from the UMP is already proposing an electoral accord with the Front National. For more information, see: link to francetv.fr (in French).

  5. No, Sarkozy did not lose because of refusal to do a stimulus program, he lost because the economy is bad. If it doesn’t improve by the time of the next election Hollande will probably lose also.

  6. It’s alarming that the mechanisms that made Sarkozy pay for his sins don’t seem to function in America. There are growing ties between the GOP and old white supremacists from the ’90s via the Tea Party and Christian Dominionists, yet there are no consequences. Apolitical and even mildly liberal citizens see a flag-waving theocrat and perceive a better American than themselves, thus censor themselves and restrain sensible criticism. Witness monstrous liar David Barton’s recent interview by Jon Stewart, who I hear refused to challenge Barton’s bullshit that all the Founding Fathers mandated a right-wing Christian republic.

    The one great favor Hitler did Europe is that he got all its flag-waving bigots to join his crusade, and dragged them all into dishonor and discredit with him. It hasn’t happened in America yet.

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