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France 2012: Sarkozy’s ugly campaign

The first round of the French Presidential election is set to take place this Sunday. The latest polls show that right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre-left contender François Hollande are…

Nicolas Sarkozy will seek another term as President of France this Sunday. EPA/Christophe Karaba

The first round of the French Presidential election is set to take place this Sunday.

The latest polls show that right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre-left contender François Hollande are set to win their ticket to the second round.

While both candidates are currently polling in the high 20s, an upset is not entirely ruled out. The campaign has also shown strong support for three main outsiders: centre François Bayrou, but more importantly hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and extreme right Marine Le Pen.

Sarkozy’s run to the right

While Hollande has so far refused to embrace more left-wing politics, Sarkozy has made a clear move to recuperate Le Pen’s electorate.

His attempts have not gone unnoticed and have attracted strong criticism from across the globe. The Wall Street Journal has even called him “Nicolas Le Pen”.

Opinion polls now show Sarkozy in front for the first time. Le Pen’s support meanwhile has slumped from a high of 19% in October last year, to 14% in early April.

Sarkozy’s strategy is not surprising and could well prove successful. Prior to March when ratings were poor, Sarkozy’s re-election seemed at best improbable. He appeared unable to reignite the fervour of 2007 which had given him a strong mandate.

After four years in power many of those who had turned to the hyper-active president felt disappointed, and were planning to return to their traditional voting patterns or to abstention.

Populist politics

The centrality of populist politics were reemphasised in Sarkozy’s campaign following Le Pen’s Front National upset the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) during the 2011 county elections.

This was demonstrated by the nomination of radical right advisor Patrick Buisson, and the media saturation organised by special advisor Henry Guaino and Minister of the Interior and Immigration Claude Guéant. Both played a major part in Sarkozy’s 2007 populist victory.

Guaino has made Sarkozy’s new position clear; “it is true that in a society in crisis, immigration is a problem”.

Guéant refutes the idea that this position is linked to xenophobia. He argues instead that it is natural for the French to “want France to remain France”.

For Guaino, the importance of the 2012 elections was reminiscent of Le Pen’s apocalyptic rhetoric. Outbidding Le Pen herself, he added an undeniably neo-racist tone to his rhetoric, when he declared that “all civilisations are not equal in worth”.

Guéant clarified that he was not targeting any culture in particular, but quickly highlighted the importance of banning the hijab in public, as well as street prayers.

Immigration and multiculturalism are key platforms of Le Pen’s National Front EPA/Ian Langsdon

Sarkozy has described the proposition to grant foreigners the right to vote in local elections as a “blow to the Republic”, linking his strange reasoning to the burqa issue. For Guéant, it would lead to “compulsory halal food in the meals served in school cafeterias”.

Sarkozy added, “there are too many foreigners on our territory”, and promised to halve immigration.

Targeting the weak

Borrowing further from Le Pen, Sarkozy attempts to present himself as the candidate of the “rupture”, or of the people against the elite. To achieve this, many populist proposals have been added to the campaign.

While recently opposed to the idea of referenda, Sarkozy proposed in his campaign to ask “the people” whether unemployment benefits should be reformed to force the unemployed back into work.

That half of those eligible do not claim the minimal unemployment benefits escaped Sarkozy’s populist discourse. Instead, he singled out the most defenceless in society as innately lazy and profiteering from taxpayers’ money.

With less than a week to go until the first round, Sarkozy has made it clear that he will be relying on the extreme right vote. To assuage the fears of his more moderate electorate, some of his advisers have noted that his campaign for the second round would be more centrist.

While it is unclear whether Sarkozy is reinforcing or damaging Le Pen’s results in the first round, he has certainly given her ideas an added legitimacy.

This cannot bode well for the future of French and European politics.