by Bia Assevero
- USA/France -
Nicolas Sarkozy’s election to the French presidency last May 6th, signals that the French people have made a definite choice about the direction in which they want France to move. Or at least 53 percent of them made that choice; the other 47 percent are bitterly disappointed and more than a little scared.
That is the thing about Nicolas Sarkozy. He is a love-him or hate-him kind of guy and there is little, if any middle ground. He is a Machiavellian character; expediency may as well be his middle name. He is aggressive and brash, and political correctness is not high on his list of priorities.
Anyone who doubts that need only remember that during the 2005 riots in Paris’s poorer suburbs, he referred to those neighborhoods as slaughterhouses that need to be hosed down to rid the country of the racailles. In English, that word translates to “scum,” but in French it carries an even more negative connotation. It was a shocking statement to many French people, but Sarkozy stood by it, never once appearing remotely repentant.
Given that, it is hard to feel his rhetoric about creating a new and unified France is anything more than lip service. Sarkozy is too divisive a force to ever bring all the elements of France’s multi-cultural society together. It is probably just as well then, that does not appear to be his principal objective.
Sarkozy has a concrete plan for France; ultimately this is where he won the presidency. French politics, and European politics in general, tend to be based on ideology and issues. Ségolène Royal attempted to turn the election into a popularity contest. While she might have walked away with the Miss Congeniality award, she did not walk away with the presidency.
Sarkozy wants to revamp the economy. He wants to snap France out of its stagnation and leave the “Nanny” state behind, in favor of a more competitive market economy. More than anything else, this means getting French people to work more in order to increase state revenues. If Sarkozy has his way, the 35 hour work week will be something to put in history books alongside stories of the French Revolution.
Sarkozy’s reforms will not be easy to implement, however. The French, while aware that change is inevitable, are hardly likely to embrace it overwhelmingly. Change means insecurity, even if only for a little while - and there is nothing that the French despise more than feeling as if they are on the edge of a precipice.
The French crave reassurance and stability. They want to know that once they find a job, it’s theirs. They want to know that when they retire, they will have state-funded pensions. They want to know that when they are sick, they can go to the doctor without worrying about who will foot the bill.
Under Sarkozy’s reforms, even the unemployed will be required to take up some sort of employment, even if it is for minimal economic gain, if they are going to receive welfare benefits. This is a key point, because in many instances, particularly for marginalized members of the society, unemployment is actually more “profitable” than working for minimum wage.
However, the reality is that while France traditionally votes right, they often live left.
Intellectually, the French know that the welfare state is simply no longer economically viable. Change is inevitable. However, if change is forced through too quickly, if solid job security, state-funded pensions and free medical care disappear too abruptly, the backlash could easily cancel out all Sarkozy’s attempts to transform France into a modern economic dynamo. If Sarkozy fails to recognize this, he could find himself facing the sort of protests that ruined Dominique de Villepin when he attempted to reform labor laws in 2005.
Sarkozy also has ambitions on the foreign policy front. He wants to play a prominent role on the world stage and he intends to drag France along with him. That means reaffirming France’s stature in the EU and possibly cooperating more with the United States than Jacques Chirac did.
However, Sarkozy will have to be exceedingly careful. While many French have a genuine appreciation of America and Americans, they often do not fully comprehend the culture. What they definitely do not approve of is the current administration or its policies. The last thing that Sarkozy wants to do is end up like Tony Blair, with his domestic credibility in tatters because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Sarkozy would do very well to insure that his pro American outlook does not sacrifice France’s more traditional alliances, notably the Franco German alliance that sits at the very heart of the European Union. Any damage done to that relationship will invariably have far reaching impacts on all of Europe.
More than the economy, however, more than foreign policy or education or the environment or any number of other important issues, Sarkozy’s biggest challenge will be to deal with the complexity of France‘s current multi-cultural society By nature, Sarkozy is not one to beat around the bush. In contrast, in France, so much is left unsaid that reading between the lines is an essential skill.
The fact of the matter is that while France is called a multicultural society because so many different types of people live there, it is not nearly as integrated as many would have you believe. Behind the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, there is a much harsher reality and its roots lie in a past that has never been digested.
France’s role in the second World War is something that it is extremely sensitive about. In 1995, Jacques Chirac was the first French president to declare that France could not divorce itself from the actions of the Vichy regime. Nevertheless, a large majority of the French population does exactly that.
French historian Henri Rousso calls it the Vichy Syndrome. France simply has not come to terms with those four years in history when it was occupied by Germany, when the Vichy regime emerged and actively participated in the Holocaust. It is a question of a society having a selective memory, choosing what parts of history it wishes to remember and which parts it wishes to conceal.
France has one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. It lives alongside one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe. The French government does not keep statistics based on race and religion, so it is difficult to put an actual number on these demographics.
It is equally hard to measure tangibly how much France’s sensitivity to anti Semitism, part of the Vichy Syndrome, has impacted the integration of Muslim immigrants into the society. For a country that prides itself on its secular nature, much of its current social dynamic is about religion.
Until fairly recently, in historical terms, France had a clear-cut idea of its identity. The language, the culture, the customs: these were the things that made you French. Today, however, France is confronted with a different demographic: now there is a significant Arab and Islamic population. The first generation of immigrants, particularly those of North African descent, arrived in France at a time where the country needed cheap labor; they brought their culture and their customs with them. For that generation, integration meant acculturation. For their children, however, the situation is far more complicated. That generation has been born and raised in France, and yet is still been marginalized by mainstream French society.
Most, even those with professional degrees, live in poor suburbs. No matter what their educational qualifications, they have a hard time finding jobs. More often than not, whether they are immigrants or the French-born children of immigrants, they are made to feel that they are “other”: in other words, the opposite of being French.
Yes, these are the sons and daughters of immigrants. However, in every other respect, these citizens are French. It is this generation that is disenchanted, marginalized and angry. It is this generation that is forcing France to look at itself in the mirror and adjust its idea of French identity.
France’s Muslims must be made to feel that their religion does not negate their nationality. They must be able to look at the blue, white and red of the French flag and sing “La Marseillaise”, and really feel French. They must feel they legitimately recognize themselves in these symbols.
It is unfortunate then, that Sarkozy’s handling of the riots in 2005 turned this very community against him. They distrust him, they dislike him and they are in no way disposed to listening to anything he has to say. Under other circumstances, had this been any other time in France’s history, this segment of the population would probably have ended up even more marginalized.
However, this time, they are not going to let it happen. The immigrants and the legally French children of these immigrants are by now a community which has reached its breaking point. The riots might well be only the tip of the iceberg. This is exactly what many French fear, and that fear was another factor in Sarkozy’s appeal to many traditional French voters. Their reasoning was, if the disenchanted do revolt, then Sarkozy was tough enough to handle it.
It is ironic that so much of Sarkozy’s ambition is directed toward restoring France’s prominence in the world on both economic and political fronts. Yet precisely because it is he who is president, the very diversity that should be France’s greatest strength, the foundation on which the country’s role as a leader of the world international community should rest, is almost certain to end up being its greatest weakness.
About the Author
Bia Assevero is a dual French-American citizen and a recent graduate of the American University of Paris with degrees in international politics and international affairs. She is a linguist and a freelance sports journalist with a particular passion for European football.