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article imageOp-Ed: Sarkozy is a Victim of the French Identity Crisis

By Michael Cosgrove     Mar 23, 2009 in World
The latest polls here show President Sarkozy at his second lowest level of popularity since he was elected almost two years ago. He’s at 36% and in freefall. Why is that?
After all, before these figures were published he was on a relative roll, thanks mostly to the vicious and never-ending leadership wars between the more prominent members of the opposition Socialist Party. Their collective suicide attempt has blinded them to the fact that their job as a parliamentary opposition party is to propose credible alternative policies to help shape the country’s future. It’s what they were elected to do, but they are not coming up with the goods.
Indeed, the only opposition they have managed to muster has been the petulant, knee-jerk and maliciously-intended rejection of anything Sarkozy and his Government may propose to enact. This includes measures that the Socialists proposed themselves a few years back. Tactics have also included flouncing out of the Parliament building in farcical protest and outrageous filibustering. The Socialists have also adopted dangerously devil’s advocate tactics by predicting social revolt, as did Laurent Fabius, a prominent socialist. In other words, there is no constructive political opposition here to Nicolas Sarkozy.
In fact things are so bad for the opposition that in other recent polls the French estimated that the politician best qualified to resolve the country’s problems is, ironically, Sarkozy himself (because there is no alternative, remember). Surprisingly, Olivier Besancenot, a charismatic and revolutionary postman with a growing reputation for strong-arm tactics, came a close second. His Trotskyist anti-capitalist party got, wait for it, 4% of votes in the Presidential elections.
A President in almost any other country would revel in that kind of favourable situation and be able to push his legislation through with ease. But it’s not happening here ironically, and that is very disturbing. It’s disturbing because Sarkozy’s difficulties represent ominous evidence of a very dangerous scenario that is being played out here. In other words, France is witnessing a growing power vacuum, and the French are playing with fire.
Nicolas Sarkozy has become a very unpopular President with almost no political opposition. This is a potentially explosive situation and it is directly linked to what the French themselves call their Identity Crisis (“Crise d’Identité”). The current Identity Crisis, and I say current because others have come and gone since the end of WWII, has existed since the eighties. It has been exacerbated recently by the onset of the global financial crisis. People have lost all faith in politics and politicians due to a combination of factors. Political and financial scandals are high up on the list of culprits. Sarkozy may not be the problem, but he sure is the ideal fall-guy. His most effective opposition is not political, but rather the millions of French citizens who lack credible parliamentary representation.
Ordinary French people have the feeling of being helpless onlookers in what they see as being a dangerous and threatening world. Increasingly hostile suspicion towards politics and the world economy has gradually created a pervasive and deleterious atmosphere and recent events have demonstrated that the mood is getting uglier.
Recent nationwide strikes to protest Sarkozy’s methods for dealing with the current world financial crisis were overwhelmingly supported by the French public. The last one, called last week, attracted millions of people out onto the streets. Several marches culminated in violence. The Trade Unions who organised the strike even refused to let opposition political parties take part in the marches. In other words, this was a strike against the whole of the political establishment, left and right included.
The frequency of strikes and demonstrations has reached alarming proportions, and this in a country already well known for going on strike. Recent nationwide strikes and go-slows have involved teachers, university staff, researchers, public transport employees, magistrates, port and refinery personnel, schoolchildren (yes, schoolchildren can and do go on strike here) and many others. More national general strikes are being planned and the government has been forced to abandon or postpone several badly-needed reform plans due to deeply hostile popular opinion and actions. All of this is harming the economy and further undermining national confidence at the very moment when national solidarity and effort are desperately needed.
Threatening letters with bullets enclosed have been sent to prominent politicians, the railways were recently sabotaged by a self-styled revolutionary group and urban riots are becoming increasingly common. People are becoming used to this kind of phenomena, and their reaction to them can best be summed up as consisting of a shrug of the shoulders and resigned phrases such as “What do you expect?”
The deeper roots of the problems facing France, and Nicolas Sarkozy, are of course to be found in one of France’s most appealing national attributes, which is its ferocious will to perpetuate its traditions and lifestyle. I personally applaud this sentiment and, via my resolutely French lifestyle, encourage it. Nevertheless, France is now a part of a more and more interlinked and interdependent world, and the French will just have to get used to it. Just as they will have to acclimatize themselves to the fact that some things will change, whether they like it or not. It’s time that people here began to bite the bullet and get ready for changes. This necessitates a good dose of healthy realism and a willingness to adapt. But it just isn’t happening.
So, for the moment, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist and anti-globalist feelings are running rife here, as is an ever-increasing awareness of France’s dwindling influence on world affairs. The prevailing sentiment of national despondency means that Sarkozy has little room for manoeuvre right now, yet he’s playing for very high stakes. His biggest challenge is to help the French people to embrace change and to accept the inevitable. As the President of a country that traditionally relies on the state and its father-figure leaders to resolve all its problems he must succeed, along with his government.
He must succeed because France is scared. And if nothing is done soon by leading political figures to allay the fears that beset ordinary people here, the whole thing may just blow up in their faces....
(Nb. Almost all links are to French-language sources. Sorry about that. The reason is that almost all of the detailed link sources were not published in English).
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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