The Italian Job

Nicholas Sarkozy's political inspiration comes from Italy: First, it was Berlusconi's flashy PR. Now it's the virulent nationalism of Umberto Bossi.

The first incarnation of French President Nicholas Sarkozy was that of a polished Parisian Silvio Berlusconi. The stint was evident in Sarkozy’s excessive public performances, like his Egyptian vacation in December 2008, when he wore sunglasses that would have been better placed at the front lines in Afghanistan. To celebrate his electoral victory on the night of May 6th 2007, he chose the famed restaurant “Fouquet” as the perfect venue to invite top personalities of the hexagon – even Jean Reno, Bernard Arnault, and cycling hero Richard Virenque.

Sarkozy also married model Carla Bruni Tedeschi a mere nine weeks after first meeting her. The wonderful Italian, formerly linked to Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and a small group of intellectuals, brought Sarkozy’s personal life to the headlines. Luckily, she also cleaned up the French president’s personal image which had previously included a pathological passion for high-heeled shoes – needless to say, also a Berlusconian idea. The German weekly “Der Spiegel” came to the conclusion that “President Nicolas Sarkozy has benefited more than almost any other politician from the media’s growing obsession with celebrity. France’s ‘téléprésident’ orchestrates politics like a reality show.”

Silvio’s destiny in Italy is decaying

Berlusconi also provided the inspiration for Sarkozy’s passion for controlling the national media. Although he does not have a de facto ownership monopoly over private television – as the Italian TV-Mogul does – Sarkozy made the best he could out of his friendships. As the newspaper “Le Monde Diplomatique” wrote, “France has produced a new model of media control, somewhere between Berlusconi and Putin. Sarkozy does not need to emulate Berlusconi in actually owning the titles: his friends will do that for him.”

But what happens when Sarkozy’s Italian role model begins to fade? Today, Silvio’s destiny in Italy is decaying: Ousted by a directorate of conservative technocrats, he is hiding in his parliamentary seat and uncertain about his political future. His grip on the media did not help to save his position. It only delayed his decline, at the expense of Italy’s wealth.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission

subscribe now

Read more on The European:

It is no surprise that, upon announcing his intention to run for a new term in office, Sarkozy resorted to new tactics. He is facing challenges that are somewhat similar to Italy’s: high debt, dissatisfactory economic performance, unsolved immigrant integration questions, and a working class in revolt. His new idea? “Halal meat is the first source of worry for French people” (March 5). France has “too many foreigners” (March 6). France “does not repent the occupation of Algeria” (March 9).

According to some anaylysts, these blunt nationalist sound bites have been an answer to the rise of Marine le Pen of the National Front. Le Pen doesn’t stop at criticizing halal meat; she calls for a ban. She strongly opposes the country’s “Euro ideology” although, in general, she says about herself: “I am not a right-extremist: I am a nationalist and defend Republican values." Marine Le Pen is somehow the dark side of the French Gaullian force.

Sarkozy may find a new source of inspiration in the tactics of Italian nationalists.

Sarkozy is trying to fish for her votes. But the nationalist spice in his electoral campaign may also have an Italian inspiration: Umberto Bossi’s supremacist “Lega Nord.” The party started off as a “secessionist” movement that demanded better political representation for the industrial regions of Northern Italy. When Berlusconi embraced that position himself to take the wind out of Bossi’s sails, the “Lega” resorted to a form of “Northern Nationalism” that argued for a prohibition of the building of Mosques in Italy and performed PR stunts with racist undertones. In 2005, Mario Borghezio, a “Lega” politician, set fire to some pallets where a group of migrants were sleeping.

Some Italians could not resist these charming ideas. At the end of the “secessionist” era in 2001, “Lega Nord” had slumped to 4% in electoral polls. But it rebounded quickly. The new nationalist marketing strategy propelled the party to 8% in 2008 (national elections), 10% in 2009 (European elections), and 12,2% in 2010 (regional elections).

In 2012, Sarkozy may find a new source of inspiration in the tactics of Italian nationalists. Socialist leader François Hollande is polling at 30%, Sarkozy at 28%, and Le Pen at 15%. If Sarkozy can steal some votes from the right, his claim on another presidential term would suddenly become much stronger. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, well, a ghost is haunting Europe: the ghost of marketing nationalism.

Stefano Casertano, The European;
  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable

    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.