Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that he is seeking a second term has added some spice to the campaign for the French presidential elections of 2012. Up to this point, most of the running has been done by the President’s opponents, most notably Marine Le Pen, the new face of the extreme right National Front; François Bayrou, the sturdy centrist critic of Sarkozism; and the Socialist François Hollande, who has emerged as the front-runner. With Sarkozy now in the ring, the challenges of Le Pen and Bayrou are likely to fade (the prospect of the National Front making it to the second round, which seemed very real at the beginning of 2012, is now receding). So in the months ahead the contest will turn into a traditional two-horse race between the Right and the Left, with an incumbent conservative president trying to prevent his Socialist adversary from capturing the Elysée.
Directly elected by universal suffrage, the modern French presidency was fashioned by Charles de Gaulle, the French Resistance leader who founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. De Gaulle’s leadership combined the republican principles of popular sovereignty and governing in the general interest with the neo-monarchist precept that decisive leadership required a strong centralized State, incarnated in the person of the President. ‘Discussion is for many’ he once said ‘but action is for one’. In his latest book Les Hommes Providentiels, the French historian Jean Garrigues compellingly shows that this Gaullian ideal of a republican monarchy also drew on older French providentialist images of redemption, patriotism, renovation, and protection. To a lesser or greater extent, all French presidents have sought to portray themselves as the bearers of these values. Indeed, at his first major election meeting at Marseille, Sarkozy repeatedly spoke of his ‘love’ for France, and claimed that he would be the candidate of the ‘people’ against the ‘elites’ (he even promised, in a silent homage to the Bonapartist and Gaullist traditions, to hold more referenda on key issues). Above all, he assumed the mantle of the national saviour, asserting that he would protect the nation from the perils of crime and uncontrolled immigration, and that his steady economic stewardship would continue to preserve France from global economic turbulences.
Will this providentialist rhetoric be enough to secure Sarkozy’s re-election? Although he is still far behind François Hollande in the polls, it would be premature to write off this pugnacious politician, especially given his established qualities as a campaigner, to say nothing of the considerable material and psychological advantages he enjoys as the sitting tenant. History provides some encouragement too — De Gaulle, Mitterrand and Chirac were all re-elected after their first terms. But these historical comparisons also highlight the fragilities of Sarkozy’s current position. Unlike his predecessors, he is not popular or even widely respected, and his record of achievement in the domestic arena over the past five years is strikingly thin. He has fared slightly better in European and foreign policy, playing a steadying role during the banking and Euro crises, and spearheading the western military intervention in Libya. But these successes have paradoxically done little to improve his image. Indeed Sarkozy’s fundamental problem is that he is widely perceived to have ‘desacralized’ the presidency, all at once by his abrasive style, by his close and often controversial links with the world of high finance, and by his displaying his private life into the public realm — notably through his glamourous marriage to Carla Bruni. In the sphere of collective morality, the French remain overwhelmingly attached to the Rousseauist tradition of austere virtue. This is no doubt why the socialist candidate François Hollande, whose electoral pamphlet Changer de Destin has just been published, has been widely applauded for his aspiration to revert to a more sober, classically Gaullian incarnation of the presidency – and also one which restores the republican notion of general interest. Manifestly aimed at Sarkozy, Hollande cheekily quotes de Gaulle’s dismissive quip about stock markets: ‘La politique de la France ne se fait pas à la corbeille’. This may well prove to be the epitaph of the Sarkozy presidency.