Sarkozy: la France c’est moi
- March 12, 2012
What do you do when you are the president of France and you are facing a crushing defeat at the hands of the centre-left in forthcoming elections next month, and a substantial swathe of the electorate thinks that you are the worst French leader since World War II?
If you are Nicolas Sarkozy, this question has only one answer.
During Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign he talked a great deal about immigration and French national identity – a combination that in France, as in many other European countries, is usually evoked in reference to the Muslim immigrants who are deemed to be a particular threat to French identity. Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party faces a serious electoral challenge from the far-right in the shape of Marine Le Pen’s resurgent Front Nationale.
For this reason, Sarkozy has always been particularly willing to blow on the dog whistle, and has rarely missed an opportunity to do so in his five years in office. In 2007, he promised to create a new Ministry for Immigration and National Identity’ – a pledge that he fulfilled, though he subsequently dropped the national identity part.
In 2009 he set out to promote a “great national debate” about French national identity, which fizzled out in February the following year, amid widespread criticisms that it had been divisive, politically opportunistic and ultimately futile.
Political opportunism, immigrant scapegoating and Muslim-baiting have remained the stock-in-trade of a politician who has rarely left any depths unplumbed. Whether deporting Romanian Roma or banning the niqab and burqa, Sarkozy has consistently demonstrated a willingness to turn French xenophobia and racism to his political advantage that is unconstrained by any moral scruples.
The prospect of political extinction has clearly brought these instincts to the fore. Last week Sarkozy borrowed from David Cameron’s playbook and promised to cut immigration to the tens of thousands, because there were “too many foreigners in France”, and he pledged to restrict state benefits to legal migrants.
Sarkozy also jumped into a pseudo-controversy begun earlier this month by Marine Le Pen, who suggested that French people were unwittingly eating halal meat and that 100 percent of all meat in the Paris region was halal.
Initially Sarkozy had criticized Le Pen, but last week he changed tack, and promised to eliminate halal meat from school canteens, on the grounds that halal was the “French people’s major concern and number one topic of conversation”.
Maybe, but unemployment in France is around 10 percent nationally, rising to 20 percent amongst the young and even 40 percent in some areas, some 800,000 people work for nothing as interns, and tens of thousands are facing permanent job insecurity and short-term contracts.
In these circumstances I doubt whether halal meat is as high a priority that Sarkozy seems to think, or that the French public is as exercised about this issue as Sarkozy’s prime minister Francois Fillon, who has told Jews and Muslims that they should stop eating kosher or halal because such foods “don’t have much in common with today’s state of science, technology and health problems.”
This is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Now Sarkozy has appeared at a ridiculous US-style rally accompanied by an action man soundtrack, with celebrity backing from the ridiculous buffoon Gérard Depardieu, with a message that might easily have come from a Marine Le Pen script.
At the rally Sarkozy called on the European Union to tighten its border controls and do more to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants who are threatening European ‘civilization’, ‘our way of life’ and the ‘implosion of Europe.’
Returning to the same tune that he first played last spring in response to the rise in North African immigration via Lampedusa, Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the borderless Schengen area. Sarkozy knows that Europe is already doing a great deal to prevent illegal immigration, with frequently disastrous consequences for the people its borders are designed to exclude. He knows that non-European immigrants remain a minority in Europe and in France itself.
So his willingness to wade through these sewers is a measure of his desperation, but it’s also symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. With Europe’s political/financial elites increasingly unable to offer their populations anything but cuts and ‘austerity’, even mainstream politicians are engaging in anti-immigrant scapegoating, under the cover of debates about immigration, multiculturalism and national identity.
As in France, these debates are often presented as a recipe for good race relations and integration – even as they stigmatize immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular. It’s a sordid and dangerous game, whose repercussions are potentially very ugly indeed.
But for the Sarkozys of this world, what matters is get elected. And they don’t really care how they do it.