The French are the superlative masters of the political quote. After all, it was Louis XIV who famously remarked: “L’état c’est moi” (I am the state), and Charles de Gaulle, who opined: “A country worthy of the name does not have any friends.” Both are perfect examples of Gallic pride and French hauteur forged into history.
Monday, however, President Nicolas Sarkozy uttered a very different kind of quote. While taking part in a live television debate, he announced: “Our system of integration is working increasingly badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory …” His point was striking, not so much in what he said, but in the invisible arc he traced to the French far-right. French glory, he seemed to say, occurred in the past when there were ‘fewer’ foreigners in France. He thereby overtly nudged, winked, hinted, and smiled at far-right voters that he was the only stale croissant in a rather drab political boulangerie palatable enough for them to choose in the upcoming election.
Throughout the debate, Sarkozy depicted himself as the man who would stand up for all French people; a modern-day Joanne of Arc, ridding France of the scourge of unemployment, crime, and excess immigration. It was pure pathos, and in the end, a rather pathetic reminder of how far behind Sarkozy is in the race.
Sarkozy is desperately trying to plug the gap between him and his rival, socialist François Hollande. If the election were held tomorrow, polls predict Hollande would crush Sarkozy by 56% to 44%; without those extra far right votes, Sarkozy is political toast, or dare I say, political baguette.
Some observers may argue that xenophobia is still alive in France and, as such, Sarkozy is merely articulating the views of a significant section of the population often ignored by the mainstream politicians and media. However wrongly the President articulates those views, they still bring about important debate on themes of immigration and integration, issues otherwise usually masked from public view.
Yet, politics in France used to about the big ideas, the strong policies, and not the lowest common denominator. Most French people realize they now live in a multicultural society, complete with different cultures and races. For an incumbent president to use a wedge issue such as immigration in order to blow open the election is unprecedented and is causing an uproar. In Sarkozy’s determination to win, he will cast any hand to anyone, talk on any issue, so long as it wins him votes.
The question remains: Is this the future of French politics? The answer is not reassuring: Only if Sarkozy wins.
There are just under two months to go before the May 6 election, but all signs point to a messy and polarizing campaign ahead.
Indeed, France’s modern-day Napoleon has a long way to go before being remembered in the pantheon of great French political quotes, and his divisive re-election campaigning forgotten.
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