The FT Weekend section for Saturday December 3 / Sunday December 4, 2005 contains a major profile piece on French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. You'll find the whole piece (copied for a change, and not transcribed) behind the cut.
The reactionary revolutionary
By John Thornhill
Published: December 2 2005 16:33 | Last updated: December 2 2005 16:33
The town of Clichy-sous-Bois, a 35-minute car drive north-east of central Paris (or an hour and a half by bus and train), contains some of the most dispiriting urban landscape you could wish to avoid in western Europe. Perched on the hill above the sprawling town centre is a thicket of graffiti-scarred, high-rise tower blocks with satellite dishes mushrooming from the walls and hooded young men loitering in the dingy entrance ways.
It was near here on the night of October 27 that two boys, aged 15 and 17, died after being electrocuted in an electricity sub-station. Their families say the two boys were seeking refuge in the sub-station after being chased by the police. The interior ministry denies the police had been in pursuit, claiming that the boys’ deaths were an accident. But whatever the truth of the incident, still under formal investigation, it led to an explosion of anger in this destitute corner of Clichy-sous-Bois, prompting riots that spread to almost 300 towns across France and lasted three weeks. Nearly 9,000 cars were torched and 126 police officers were wounded in some of the most intense and widespread violence seen in France since the second world war.
The man ultimately in charge of investigating the police conduct surrounding the boys’ deaths and upholding order in Clichy-sous-Bois is Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, who by virtue of his office is known as the country’s “top cop”. A diminutive, wisecracking, 50-year-old political action man, with a somewhat gawky persona and oversized ears, Sarkozy is one of France’s most popular and controversial public figures. Ever since his days as a right-wing activist 30 years ago, when he made a memorable speech declaring that “to be a Gaullist is to be a revolutionary”, Sarkozy has been militating for political change - and his own personal advancement. As president of the governing UMP party, Sarkozy has set his sights on winning the French presidency in May 2007, an ambition he once famously confessed to: when asked whether he saw a potential president in the mirror every morning, he said that he did so “and not just when I shave”.
In person, Sarkozy is a disarming mixture of joshing informality and passionate intensity, with the air of the schoolyard smart-arse who can deter bullies with his biting tongue. In a briefing with journalists earlier this year, he set the tone by mocking the frugality of his hosts for offering milk cartons and coffee that would disgrace SNCF, the state-owned railway operator. But he quickly switched into a formidable defence of a series of political propositions, including closer European integration, tax stimulus packages for the economy, and the protection of national trade and industrial interests, some of which appeared contradictory. In spite of the strains of his tireless campaigning in support of the European constitutional treaty, and the personal distress he was evidently experiencing as a result of the public break-up of his marriage, Sarkozy put in a feisty performance. “In Britain, they call me dirigiste. In France, they call me a liberal. And in Germany, they call me a nationalist,” he said with a grin.
They call Sarkozy far ruder names in Clichy-sous-Bois. Having built his popularity on restoring a sense of security to France during a previous stint as hardline interior minister between 2002-2004, Sarkozy was never going to back down in the face of violence. He immediately declared his unflinching support for the police and dashed to the worst hotspots where he was pelted with cans and stones. But a tear-gas grenade that exploded in the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque incensed France’s Muslim population, who form a high proportion of the suburbs’ residents. Sarkozy’s comments that he would “eradicate the gangrene” from the violence-torn suburbs and “clear out the scum” inflamed passions still further.
The opposition Socialist party denounced Sarkozy as a “pyromaniac fireman” and demanded his resignation. Even his UMP colleague Azouz Begag, the minister for equality who had grown up in a Lyonnais slum, attacked Sarkozy for his incendiary language and for exploiting his high-profile visits to the suburbs for political ends. In Clichy-sous-Bois, where trucks were still carrying away the charred carcasses of cars three weeks after the original riots erupted, some local residents are burning with a sense of injustice against social exclusion, and with indignation at Sarkozy. The spray-painted graffiti on the wall of one tower block says: “We are the force. We are the order. It is you who are the disorder.”
Mathieu Kassovitz, who depicted the alienation in France’s suburbs a decade ago in his cult film La Haine, denounced Sarkozy for stigmatising the youth in the housing projects. “Hate has kindled hate for centuries, and yet Nicolas Sarkozy still thinks that repression is the only way to prevent rebellion... Like Bush, he does not defend an idea, he responds to the fears that he himself instills in people’s heads,” Kassovitz wrote on his website. “Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly a little Napoleon, and I do not know if he has the potential of a real one, but it will be impossible to say tomorrow that we didn’t know.”
For his part, Sarkozy appears unrepentant about the controversy he has helped arouse - although he admits he has been living through the most testing times in his life. Indeed, he now seems to be revelling in his new-found notoriety, which has scarcely dented his popularity ratings. Rather than retracting his tough language, he has amplified it. At a rally of 2,000 UMP political activists on November 19, he said that the word “scum” was too soft to describe people who had torched a bus on which a disabled 56-year-old woman had been begging for her life. Republican order must be restored before the government could introduce any other policies to help disadvantaged minorities.
Warming to his theme, he said that the riots had shown that France had reached a “moment of truth” and was crying out for a “rupture” with the failed policies of the past. “We must change our country, we must change it profoundly, we must break with the political, economic, and social system that has for 30 years only produced debt, unemployment, and stagnation. That is why I appeal for a clean break,” he said.
“Look at General de Gaulle in 1945 and in 1958 [when he established the Fifth Republic]. He changed everything. He changed the institutions, economic policy, social welfare, the civil service, the currency, foreign policy and defence, colonial policy, taxes and culture. He transformed France, challenging conservatism without taboo. He brought hope and conferred an unequalled prestige on our country in the world.
“For sure, I am not General de Gaulle and France today is not what it was in 1945 or 1958. Nevertheless, this crisis in the suburbs has revealed in a cruel way the reality that we have been observing for several years in many areas: our country needs radical transformation.”
A little over a year ago, the buzz surrounding Sarkozy was more of promise than menace as upwards of 25,000 members of the rightwing UMP gathered in the vast halls of Le Bourget airport, not far from Clichy-sous-Bois, to celebrate his election as party president. After serving two and a half action-packed years in government as interior and finance minister, Sarkozy had been forced to quit the cabinet to assume the party leadership. President Jacques Chirac, the figurehead of the UMP who had endured a testy relationship with Sarkozy for years, had insisted that his rebellious underling could not combine the roles of minister and party boss - even though Chirac had once done so. Forced to choose, Sarkozy had stepped down from government to seize control of Chirac’s party and turn it into an electoral machine for his own presidential bid. It was one of the most public acts of political patricide in French history.
The UMP convention had all the razzmatazz of a US-style political rally, complete with booming pop music, clouds of red, white and blue balloons, and giant plasma screens displaying schmaltzy homages to Sarkozy. The French press, clearly enamoured with this “Sarko show”, was quick to draw comparisons with the consecration of another short and hyper-ambitious Frenchman. Almost exactly 200 years previously, Napoleon had invited the Pope to Notre Dame cathedral and then proceeded to crown himself Emperor. Little wonder that the press referred to Sarkozy’s “consecration” as party leader. Sarkozy certainly displayed a similarly imperious attitude towards some of his fellow politicians as prominent cabinet ministers - and Chirac’s wife - sat meekly below the party platform, reduced to the role of stage props.
France’s premier political showman said then, and has said often since, that France, the great wellspring of revolutionary ideas and inspiration to the world, is in danger of spluttering into global irrelevance, becoming a mere “theme park for tourists”. The vitality of the world’s fifth-biggest economy has been sapped by an over-funded state and the oppressive build-up of public debt, its entrepreneurial energies have been dulled by taxes and red tape, and its social “elevator”, allowing the poor and excluded minorities to be integrated into French society, has broken down as the unemployment rate has been stuck at around 10 per cent for a generation. French society is sclerotic, blocked, immobile and paralysed by quasi-castes, who enjoy enormous benefits and privileges while denying them to outsiders.
As a Hungarian immigrant’s son who did not attend the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the traditional nursery of the French elite, Sarkozy aligns himself with the outsider seeking to make his way in the world, rather than the cosseted insider looking to defend what he has already earned. But it is a somewhat misleading image. Sarkozy’s father, born Pal Nagy-Bocsay Sarkozy, was a dissolute aristocrat who fled Hungary in 1944 ahead of the arrival of Soviet troops and joined the French Foreign Legion. He later left his wife when Nicolas was a young boy. But Sarkozy grew up in the bourgeois 17th arrondissement in Paris and the rich suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where he was later to become mayor.
Sarkozy’s solution to France’s ills combines a Thatcherite emphasis on hard work, low taxes and entrepreneurship, with a Blairite obsession with social inclusion, education and equal opportunity for all. In private, he hails these two British prime ministers, one from the right, the other from the left, as inspirational leaders who have regenerated their country. He also professes admiration for a similar left-right duo, Felipe Gonzalez and Jose Maria Aznar, for reviving the fortunes of Spain.
Jacques Delpla, a former economic adviser to Sarkozy, says that the UMP is drawing up a detailed economic reform programme, which could be rapidly implemented if Sarkozy were to win the presidency. “Sarkozy’s economic programme is a mix of economic liberalism and French dirigisme,” he says. “He is liberal in European rather than US terms in wanting to reform labour and product markets and social security. But he is interventionist in terms of industrial policy, foreign trade and agriculture, which is a must for any French presidential candidate.”
Sarkozy’s record as finance minister certainly bears out his ideologically inconsistent world view. On the one hand, he espoused free-market policies. On the other, he helped engineer a merger of two French pharmaceuticals companies to thwart the Swiss group Novartis from entering the market. His supporters, though, argue that such “economic patriotism” is now the way of the world. “We are not ideologues, we are pragmatists,” says Valerie Pecresse, a UMP deputy and official spokeswoman. “The US gives some good lessons in liberalism but it is also extraordinarily interventionist and extraordinarily dirigiste. When I see that Bush changes the rules of the game to hinder a Chinese company [CNOOC] buying a US oil company [Unocal] I understand that ‘economic patriotism’ exists on the other side of the Atlantic too.”
The most radical part of Sarkozy’s social agenda concerns his thinking on helping its “forgotten minorities”, among the very people who were protesting at Clichy-sous-Bois. Sarkozy argues that the much-vaunted French social model, which trumpets the principle of equality, has in practice produced great inequality. Racial discrimination is rooted in French society no matter whether the country formally adheres to the principles of liberte, egalite, fraternite or not. Corrective measures are needed.
Controversially, Sarkozy has also floated the idea of revising some aspects of the 1905 French law that removed religion from public life, to help facilitate the assimilation of France’s Muslim community. He has also mooted the possibility of introducing positive discrimination, a move that is regarded as anathema by some republicans. “Positive discrimination is still discrimination, which is illegal in France,” sniffs one cabinet minister.
Sarkozy’s eclectic political platform, based on the formula of being “firm but just”, certainly appears to be winning over new supporters. When he became president of the UMP last November the party had 111,000 members on its books. Today it lists more than 180,800, and is aiming to hit 200,000 by the year-end. Most new members are “Sarkozyites”, attracted to the party because of its populist president and certain to back him when selecting a rightwing presidential candidate.
For the first time in decades, Chirac has lost control of the party machinery that has sustained his dominance of the political right. The president also swallowed his principles about splitting government and party responsibilities by inviting Sarkozy back into his cabinet in May. But at the time Chirac was desperate to broaden his government’s credibility following his crushing loss in the national referendum on Europe’s constitutional treaty.
Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin the government has created a bizarre political spectacle. He is continuing to use his presidency of the ruling party as a pulpit to highlight the failures of Chirac’s 10-year presidency and the UMP-backed government, of which he is himself the second most senior member. But everyone knows the government set-up is just a temporary coalition of convenience. Sarkozy has already said that he will quit the government to take some “air” before contesting the 2007 presidential elections. The only question is when.
On the other side of Paris from Clichy-sous-Bois - in both a geographical and metaphorical sense - lies the leafy, luxurious suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a haven of genteel tranquillity and home to many of France’s most moneyed families. It was in Neuilly, nestled next to the cycle paths and boating lakes of the Bois de Boulogne, that Sarkozy demonstrated his precocious political talents in 1983 by winning the election for mayor at the age of 28. Sarkozy owed much of his startling rise to the enthusiastic patronage of Chirac, the then star of the French right, who clearly recognised something of himself in the impulsive young man. Chirac was reportedly so impressed by Sarkozy’s guile and energy on first meeting him that he said: “You’re made for politics.”
As mayor of Neuilly, Sarkozy gained invaluable business contacts and experience of local administration, helping to devise practical solutions to everyday problems. He also made a national impact in 1993, thanks to a televised hostage-taking drama at a local nursery school. Residents still talk admiringly of Sarkozy’s bravery in coolly walking into the school and negotiating with the hostage taker, who called himself the Human Bomb, obtaining the release of several children. The police, who later hinted that Sarkozy overstated his role in the drama, then stormed the building and shot the hostage-taker dead.
During this period, Sarkozy was taken into the bosom of the Chirac family, via his friendship with the future president’s daughter, Claude. The exceptionally close, almost filial, bond between the two men was only broken much later, amid accusations of “treachery”, when Sarkozy switched his allegiance to Edouard Balladur before the presidential elections of 1995. At a subsequent party meeting, some of Chirac’s allies spat at Sarkozy in disgust.
One man who knows Sarkozy and Paris’s western suburbs well is Manuel Aeschlimann, mayor of Asnieres-sur-Seine, a slightly more modest residential town just along the riverbank from Neuilly. Like most French politicians, Aeschlimann plays several roles: he is also a UMP deputy in the national parliament and an advisor to Sarkozy on public opinion and the political appeal of different policies. In this regard, Sarkozy is a most atypical French politician: he is far more interested in how a policy might work in practice than in theory. Ask Aeschlimann what Sarkozy believes deep down and, after a considerable pause, he replies with one word: pragmatism.
A candid 41-year-old chess enthusiast, Aeschlimann studies the electoral game with intense interest, but a rather clinical detachment. “When I talk to Nicolas, I tell him to keep his zen and react as if he is in a chess match. The attacks against him are legitimate, just and expected. These are the moves that the other players must make. But the question is working out how to respond to these attacks most effectively and to out-think your opponent.”
Aeschlimann’s opening gambit is to note that French politics have entered a post-ideological phase, in which politicians must devise clear solutions to voters’ immediate concerns rather than appealing to their idealistic instincts. “One notices more and more in our electoral analyses that voters are individualistic, critical and well-informed, and that in deciding their political choice they increasingly fix on concrete issues. The ideological vote - whether it is socialist, or Marxist, or liberal - is changing to one based on what affects people in their daily lives. People vote for their personal interests at the time of voting.”
In Aeschlimann’s view, Sarkozy’s political brilliance lies in tailoring his actions and his image to different segments of that electorate. For example, Sarkozy’s tough language this summer about cleansing the crime-ridden suburb of La Courneuve “with a Karcher” (a high-pressure hose) appealed to the traditional backers of the hardline National Front. But his moves to help France’s disadvantaged minorities helped woo voters on the socialist left.
Contrary to the views of the political “microcosm” of Paris intellectuals and much of the media, Aeschlimann argues that Sarkozy’s handling of the recent urban violence has only strengthened his political position, by moving the national debate back on to favourable territory. Security was the number one voter concern in the 2002 elections, but slid to number four or five over the past three years - partly thanks to Sarkozy’s toughness in his first spell as interior minister. The latest flare-up in violence has pushed the topic back up to the number two slot, behind unemployment. “In as far as this will be an all-encompassing issue in the 2007 elections and Sarkozy’s image on security is stable, solid and durable, it is evident he will gain from the return to prominence of this issue.”
The Socialist party is itching to run a candidate against Sarkozy, arguing that his liberal economic policies and his tough law-and-order stance are eventually likely to scare away voters. Jack Lang, the popular former culture minister and self-declared presidential contender from the left, says: “I consider that for me, for us, Sarkozy is a good candidate. He is clearly a man of the right. Economically, he is American. He is for wild capitalism. Politically, he is Bonapartist. He is authoritarian. I am exactly the opposite.”
For the moment, the more imminent threat to Sarkozy appears to lie within his own political family, in the form of Dominique de Villepin, the super-smooth former diplomat whom Chirac appointed as prime minister in the wake of his European referendum defeat. De Villepin, who had a reputation as a dilettante poet and suffered from the disadvantage of having never held elected office, has surprised many observers by his assiduous dedication to solving France’s unemployment crisis and his natural talent for political theatricality. His popularity has been steadily rising in the polls, to the obvious concern of Sarkozy. The personal political duel between the two country’s most senior ministers has added an intriguing subplot to the government’s deliberations.
The two political faces of Sarkozy - “firmness and justice” - were both displayed on the same dank day last month. In the late afternoon, in his role as interior minister, he addressed the 88th congress of the Association of French Mayors, an association of 35,000 local officials who form “the frontline of the republican state” and were in the thick of dealing with the latest eruption of urban violence. Thousands of mayors, from every corner of France and its overseas territories, filled the cavern-like Porte de Versailles exhibition centre in southern Paris to hear Sarkozy’s speech. As they waited impatiently for his arrival (he has never been a great timekeeper) one joker in the crowd whispered that his car must have been burned out.
Then, with television crews swarming around him, Sarkozy made his entrance and marched on to the stage, shaking hands and slapping backs in an effusive display of bonhomie. But Sarkozy wasted little time on rhetorical pleasantries. He solemnly praised the police and mayors who had dealt with the violence. He then plunged straight into an aggressive defence of his tough policies in the suburbs. He told the mayors that the police had detained 1,540 people since the riots had ended, in addition to the 3,200 arrested during the first three weeks of the violence. “Those who have pillaged, those who have behaved like delinquents will have to render account to the justice of our country,” he said, vowing to stamp out the law of the criminal gangs and drug traffickers and re-establish the law of the republic.
In a speech that would have gone down like red meat and claret at a Tory party conference, Sarkozy said he would never accept the unacceptable, or excuse the inexcusable. He asked whether it was time to re-examine the 1945 law dealing with delinquent minors, which he thought too lenient. The youth of 2005 were not the same as those of 1945. “It is not when a 15-year-old adolescent has become a multi-recidivist delinquent that we should begin dealing with his case,” he said. He also railed against unelected magistrates for releasing criminal youths who went straight out and offended again, saying the judiciary must pay more heed to the views of elected mayors.
Teachers, social workers, police officers, doctors and youth associations all had a responsibility to identify and tackle problem cases early. But he accepted that the government should do more to deal with school truancy, which he described as “the beginning of the catastrophe”, and provide supervised places of study where “four o’clock orphans” would be forced to do their homework. But he reserved his toughest words for the parents of delinquents, who he said were failing in their responsibilities. “The family is not a place for obtaining rights, notably state benefits; it is also a place where one must assume one’s duties,” he said. Those families that failed in these duties would be placed under supervision.
“Bravo et merci!” the head of the mayor’s association replied.
Outside the exhibition centre, as the drizzle fell and night closed in, a small but harmonious choir of anti-globalisation protestors sweetly serenaded the mayors, singing that they were deaf to the real concerns of society. (The theatre of protest is a highly evolved art in France.) A tall young man, with straggly hair sprouting from under his woollen hat, was handing out leaflets urging people to change their thinking before it was too late.
“To avoid becoming human animals we must escape the society of selection in which we live, a society of repression, impoverishment, of voyeurism and fear, where the cop, violence, force and sexual licence have replaced dignity, dialogue, justice and love,” the pamphlet read. “...Sarkozy has staked everything on the repressive. His policy of public order is a total failure. He must be persuaded to quit, to deal calmly with his personal problems and to prepare his presidential candidacy if he persists in it despite his fall in popularity.”
As if to prove that some milk of human kindness did flow through his veins, a few hours later Sarkozy appeared at the 60th anniversary celebrations of La Vie, a Christian weekly magazine, to debate France’s spiritual needs and secular traditions with the archbishop of Lille. As the monsignor spoke of the need for society to create a common project that bound all its peoples together, Sarkozy acted like the class fidget, twirling his pen around his fingers, doodling on his pad, stroking his aquiline nose, craning his head back to read a poster above the stage, and checking messages on his mobile.
But once it was time for Sarkozy to speak he appeared to flick a mental switch and engaged fully with the audience crammed into the small theatre, hitting every note of the rhetorical register. With an easy humour, he charmed his audience and teased the archbishop. With an evangelical enthusiasm, he championed the virtues of a tolerant secularism. With a serious determination, he vowed to counter the perception that equated Islam with terrorism. All the time, his wildly gesticulating arms acted like a physical amplifier to his words, indicating the direction of his thoughts, expressing the intricacy of a proposition, or shooing away an unpleasant idea. Although he had devoted his life to politics, he claimed that the question of the spiritual was at the centre of life. “There is nothing more important,” he said.
As interior minister, Sarkozy is responsible for policing the strict separation of church and state. However, he argued that France had to be more flexible in helping to integrate its 5 millionstrong Muslim population, which now forms the country’s second biggest religious community but was not taken into account in the 1905 law. Controversially, Sarkozy has sponsored the emergence of moderate Islamic organisations to create an interface between the state and the Muslim community. But he has also been tough on any whiff of extremism, expelling 19 radical imams this year.
He said the vital task was to create an “Islam of France” rather than an “Islam in France”. Imams should be educated in France, speak French, and understand republican traditions. “This is not simply a question of semantics. We need an Islam that is respectful of the republic and recognises its secular traditions,” he said. “We do not want a subterranean Islam, an Islam of the garages. Everything must be in the open. It must be just.”
Before running out of the hall to attend to urgent matters of state, Sarkozy concluded his contribution on a candid note, offering the audience a glimpse of the inner thoughts that lie behind the public persona. “To be firm is straightforward,” he confessed. “To be just is a lot more difficult. What is justice for these children of the suburbs? What is a balanced response for these children? It is easy to say you need to be firm and just. But how do you define justice? That is the constant reflection I must engage in in all of my activities.” It was a rare moment of humility and self-doubt for a politician who all too often gives the impression of knowing the answer to every question, sometimes before it is even asked. But his admission of vulnerability only appeared to endear him to the audience as they discussed the debate afterwards.
The public answers that Sarkozy provides to his own rhetorical questions over the next 17 months could form a central focus of the 2007 presidential race. They could also help determine whether he fulfils his ambition of occupying the Elysee Palace, or joins the very long list of “nearly” men in French politics.
John Thornhill is the FT’s European editor.