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France Holds Its Nose

May 4, 2012

If it were not so serious it would be funny.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande squared off in Wednesday’s presidential debate. Speculation abounds as to the future of the Sarkozy family in the event of his defeat. Will his wife, the many-partnered Carla Bruni, be happy with the life of an ex-President’s spouse? How will Hollande’s partner of 20 years, Ségolène Royal, feel about her ex winning the prize that she failed to take in 2007? How does Dominic Strauss-Kahn, the much-coupling “libertine”, feel about the opportunity that could have been his had he not succumbed to the power of his gonads on that fateful day in New York?

These guys make the other candidates look like paragons of moderation – Marine Le Pen, the inheritor of her father’s rabid far-right mantle, and her counterpart on the extreme left, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, who proposed a 100% tax on all earnings over €350,000.

Compared with the French, what boring politicians we Anglo-Saxons have!

Consider David Cameron, whose only brush with notoriety was his membership of a society of adolescent hell-raisers at Oxford – the Bullingdon Club’s version of hell is to wear silly uniforms, trash their meeting venues, eat tins of powdered mustard and throw up all over the place. Hardly diabolic by the standards of the late-lamented Keith Moon and Oliver Reed.

Then we have Ed Milliband, best known for his act of fratricide in stymying brother David’s seemingly certain march to the Labour leadership last year. And Nick Clegg, whose only known foray into the slightly dark side seems to have been his having bedded over 30 women before he met his lovely wife. A track record that would make DSK guffaw with contempt.

And over the pond we have Barack Obama, whose personal life is only tinged by an incident entirely beyond his control – his birth, and specifically the location thereof. His opponent Mitt Romney, aside from his role as chief executive of Bain Capital – criticised by many as corporate vultures, feeding on the corpses of failing businesses – is notorious only for putting the family dog on the roof rack during a holiday outing, and because of speculation as to whether, as a devout Mormon, he wears magic underpants.

All rather pale stuff compared with our testosterone-fuelled neighbours in France. And no event better exemplifies that testosterone than the TV debate, in which Sarkozy appears to have delighted in mugging his opponent, rather like Mr Punch, the puppet with the hammer in the English seaside Punch and Judy shows of old. Insults flying, accusations of lying, a bitter affair. Possibly the last gasp of a doomed politician.

Mr Sarkozy’s predecessors have also had their colourful moments. Jacques Chirac was convicted of financial impropriety after he left office. Francois Mitterrand’s daughter by his mistress showed up at the great man’s funeral. And Valéry Giscard D’Estaing’s reputation was blighted by his alleged willingness to accept a bunch of industrial diamonds from the cannibalistic Jean Bedel Bokassa, “Emperor” of the Central African Republic.

Although France has begun to creak under the weight of austerity, what seems to offend French people of all political persuasions is that Sarkozy’s lacks the gravitas that his predecessors – for all their grubby moments – consistently displayed.

The role model for the French presidency ever since his departure 43 years ago continues to be Charles De Gaulle. Here was a man who did more than anyone to restore France’s pride as a nation following the humiliating defeat in World War 2. A man who considered himself above politics, spoke of grandeur and glory, and towered – both literally and metaphorically over his fellow citizens. He defined “presidential” for the French.

In the eyes of many, including substantial numbers of those who approve of his policies, Sarkozy is the antithesis of De Gaulle – vulgar, partisan and opportunistic. I call as my witness my friend Fils De Danton, who wrote an eloquent and damning post about the incumbent on this site 18 months ago. And strangely enough, it is Sarkozy’s demeanour rather than his policies that is likely to tip the balance in favour of Francois Hollande in Sunday’s election.

So France walks towards the polling booth on Sunday holding its collective nose. National Front voters casting for the socialist candidate, inspired by their leader’s deep hatred of the candidate who should be their next best option, the conservative Sarkozy. Other conservative voters opting for Hollande because they can no longer stomach Sarkozy’s lack of dignity and manners. The only voters likely to be marching to the booths with genuine enthusiasm are the socialists, who, judging from the results in the first round, are very much a minority of the overall electorate.

Hollande’s accession, if it happens, seems set to create a new round of turbulence within the EU, as he seeks to unpick accords Sarkozy reached with Angela Merkel, and to move France onto a path of growth at the expense of German-inspired austerity.

I am not as concerned as some about the consequences of Sunday’s vote. Dominant orthodoxies always need to be challenged. I am not convinced that the social starvation of austerity – mass unemployment, the increasing gap between rich and poor – is any more healthy than starvation dieting, which can do the job in the short term, but can also damage the body and all too often result in equally rapid weight gain once the harsh regime is lifted.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s election and its consequence, nothing will alter my deep love of France and of all things French – apart from strikes and barricades. But I fear that whichever way things turn out, we can expect the voices of Les Misérables to ring out more loudly on the streets and in the suburbs in the years to come.

And what kind of life will Nicolas Sarkozy make for himself après le deluge? Ambassador to Libya perhaps.

From → France, Politics, UK, USA

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