Behind the Glitz and the Gaffes

Hungry for a story, the media have had a lot of fun and sold a lot of copy chronicling the miscues, the (largely calculated) outrageousness, and headline grabbing antics of French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, while watching his slide toward a Fifth-Republic record (since 1958) for executive unpopularity. And on rare dull days, more than likely one of Sarkozy’s ministers will utter something contentious/inept/inflammatory to keep the show well-paced. More recently a few voices have warned against being lulled by all the hilarity into thinking that it’s just another neo-Gaullist buffoon at the helm while the storm-tossed left rights itself. The popularity numbers are improving, the new Madame Sarkozy is proving an effective ambassador and foil and, importantly, the rightward reforms pushed by Sarkozy proceed apace, measure-by-measure, directive-by-directive, piling up in the fine print of the Official Journal at a steady rate of accretion.

In his column in the daily newspaper Libération, pundit Alain Duhamel recently makes the point clear that Nicolas Sarkozy is anything but a conservative. It was Carla Bruni-Sarkozy who said it, as a guest editor-for-a-day at Libération earlier in the week, and Duhamel jumped on her statement ("My husband is not at all conservative.") to point out that this was neither eyewash nor disinformation, but simply the unvarnished truth camouflaged as a Sarko-style brash statement. According to Duhamel, France has affair with something new to its political scene, a right-wing reformer. First of all, the right-wing part. France has had no president in the Fifth Republic as unabashedly and clearly to the right as Nicolas Sarkozy, unstoppable on his basic message of law and order, merit, work, competition, wealth is fun, and people who have it shouldn’t have to give it back to the State.
As for the reform profile, the President has no qualms about the State (usually in the person of himself) intervening on various questions to get the results he wants, no more than he does about smashing icons on the left and also on the right (with equal glee). Changing not protecting the status quo is his mantra. In the demagogic tradition of hyperbole, everything needs reformed if not just plain scrapped: hospitals, schools, courts, unions, the military, media, universities and, over all, the social welfare system. The list is too long? We’ll do them all at once. The price of oil and food skyrocketing? Let’s go faster. Ineptness, cacophony, failures, outcry, negative outcomes, human suffering, these are all simply signs that he’s on the right track but that much more remains to be done.

What makes this approach work is that France like most current democratic systems has suffered erosion to the democratic process. A great deal can be accomplished by the executive branch, either alone or after rubber-stamp authorization by a tamed legislative one. In addition, when the person in power is on best bud terms with a large share of media ownership, it is much easier to shrug off the slings and arrows. State-of-siege rhetoric, where it is not the bungling president who is under siege but everyone, threatened by foreign competition, terrorism, or alien religions and the like, was effective for instance in pushing through stiffened (anti-)immigration measures.

In another very recent example, President Sarkozy has embarked on an ambitious and far-reaching reform of public television which is cleverly if thinly disguised as giving public television back to the public but which seems to many many observers as a way for the President — hardly a defender of public goods — to regain control of this powerful medium. In a move which seemingly nobody could hate, advertising is to disappear from the main public network, but with insufficient funding to replace the lost revenue, and the President refusing to increase the annual user-tax that is levied on all television set owners (one of the lowest in Europe). A new TV czar is to be created, and named by the President himself, while the State becomes the sole revenue source for public television. Once the massive discord these measures have provoked dies down, the result could well be apathetic, untaxed (in both senses) audiences in front of a controlled stream of information.
Near the end of a tumultuous and highly-criticized first year, including from within his own ranks, Sarkozy lent the impression of a leader on the ropes, ad libbing survival strategies for enduring the last four years of his term. This now appears to be inaccurate, and more than one observer is beginning to look beneath the cover of disapproval ratings to see what is being quietly accomplished.

A recent blog entry by two university historians explains the "counter-revolution" they see depicted in the decisions taken, the mechanisms put in place and above all the values forgotten or effaced by Sarkozy and his collaborators. The historians’ starting point is the irony of soft-focus commemorations of "May 68" serving as a backdrop to the beginning of the dismantlement of what many once thought to be significant steps toward a more just society. But a hyperactive president, daily announcements of deconstructing "reforms", noisy coverage by a complicit media of all the glitz and gaffes of the person in power, Socialist Party impotence as political discourse is dragged to the right and it finds itself in an indefensible center, all conspire further to wear down what social resistance is left, paving the way for what our two historians see as the "new contract between society, State, and capital".

All the collateral damage occasioned by Sarkozy’s thrashings about is in fact useful; the new contract seeks a new setting, and it doesn’t really matter when a building is pulled down whether the architect was on the left or the right. Is the new regime in France constituted largely by brash acts of mayhem? Undoubtedly. Does that mean it is all sound and fury, going nowhere and serving no purpose nor interest? This is far less sure.

(c) Timothy Carlson

July/August/September 08