PARIS – “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.” Winston Churchill’s famous denunciation of the delaying tactics of the British and French on the eve of World War II should be a warning to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In fanning vicious anti-immigrant passions for short-term political gain, he will have dishonor first and then defeat. For, although a majority of French today may be inclined to sympathize with Sarkozy’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric, there is no guarantee that they will re-elect him in 2012.
It is not so much Sarkozy’s performance as president that most Frenchmen reject; it is his essence. At a time of rising unemployment, with France dominated by fears about the future, the French need a reassuring father or mother figure, not a jittery and manipulative leaderready to compromise ethics and France’s proud tradition that every citizen is entitled to equal treatment under the law.
Former Prime Minister Michel Rocard did not mince words about Sarkozy’s recent proposals to strip foreign-born French nationals of their citizenship if convicted of threatening the life of a police officer, practicing polygamy, or female “circumcision.” “One has not seen such measures since the Vichy regime or since the Nazis,” Rocard declared. Equating Sarkozy with Marshal Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime is, of course, an exaggeration, but Rocard’s concerns are shared by many French – and not only intellectuals and pundits.
Even among traditional conservatives, there is a whiff of ethical disgust at Sarkozy. Can the French really violate their values to such an extent? Will re-introduction of the death penalty be the next step on this populist downward spiral?
Two years, of course, is a long time in politics, and any predictions today about the presidential vote in 2012 would be imprudent. Yet few analysts today would bet on Sarkozy’s re-election. He proved to be a great candidate in 2007, but he was also running against a particularly weak Socialist contender, Ségolène Royal. In 2012 it is unlikely that a Socialist Party “starved for power” will commit electoral suicide once again by nominating an unelectable figure.
Could France today be like the France of 1980 on the eve of the Left’s first victory since the establishment of the Fifth Republic? Will Dominique de Villepin, the flamboyant former prime minister under Jacques Chirac, be to Sarkozy what Chirac was to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981? Chirac, it should be recalled, guaranteed the defeat of Giscard d’Estaing by dividing the Right so bitterly that it proved impossible to reunite behind Giscard in his final-round confrontation with François Mitterrand.
Behind such speculation are important questions about the state of French society and governmental institutions. France, perhaps more than most European countries, is faced with serious internal security problems and violence linked to the failures of previous immigration policies, which have turned the dreams of the 1960’s into the nightmares of the present. The undeniable escalation of violence in too many big-city suburbs, and the emergence of local “Scarfaces” who live totally without rules in a fantasy-like world of brutality, reflect a state that has gone astray.
But a pure “law and order” response to these problems will not magically repair the damage inflicted by years of bad policy and neglect. Too much state is not the answer to a locally failed state. Successful education and integration policies take time to work and thus will not bring clear-cut results in time for the next election. To stigmatize immigrants, Muslims in particular, or to destroy the camps in which Roma live, is a much easier task, even if it reveals the truly opportunistic and amoral nature of both Sarkozy and those who surround him.
For nearly 60 years, universal suffrage has made successive French presidents the modern equivalents of elected monarchs, men who have concentrated in their hands more power than their counterparts in any other democratic country. Chirac’s shortening of the presidential term from seven to five years has, paradoxically, resulted in an even greater concentration of presidential power. The problem with this omnipotent presidency is that the qualities needed in order to be elected are not necessarily those required to master the art of government, with its mixture of distance, patience, serenity, and modesty, in addition to energy and activism.
The French presidency combines both the symbols and the realities of power – the equivalent of both the Queen of England and the British prime minister. But an office designed bespoke for a giant like Charles de Gaulle may simply be too much for any single man or woman. Indeed, it could very well be that the failures of recent French presidents point to a structural problem at the heart of the French constitution, and not just to the shortcomings of its various incumbents.