Though it has been proven on many occasions that democracies are more sustainable in the long run than their autocratic contenders, as political responsibility conferred on popularly elected statesmen makes them more sensitive to the gravity of their actions, the current crisis France is now facing provides a facile lever with which to overturn this tried-and-true observation.
In his Grenoble speech of July 30 made on the occasion of entry into office of a new prefect of Isère, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, overburdened by his country’s economic problems and political scandals surrounding the Bettencourt affair which involves, albeit indirectly, some references to his 2007 presidential campaign, made a harsh speech that no one is likely to forget, until his presidency expires.
The notion of security has always been central to the French political thought. From the times of Cardinal de Richelieu who managed to take his country victorious out of the deadly Thirty Years’ War to the Franco-Prussian War, in which France was humiliatingly defeated, to the First World War, where it stood its way to the finish, but lost the vigor to sustain itself any further, to the Second World War, another defeat, – France has been assailed by the security dilemma. The uniqueness of the current situation is that France is now confronted with another side of this vague notion, which pertains to its domestic security.
In a democratic country, which is certainly in no position to single out a certain group of its citizens to be protected from another group of less loyal ones, internal security is sustained by dint of state-sponsored efforts to promote national unity and reconciliation, in case there are grounds for a rift. Despite this self-evident assumption, the current leader of France is rather imprudently pursuing a policy of self-defeating rigor and unjustified harshness verging on discriminative practices of the past times. This is at least what his detractors believe him to be doing.
As a follow-up of the last year’s idea to initiative a national debate on national identity, which was implemented with much ardor by Éric Besson, a minister in the Fillon government responsible for immigration, integration and solidarity – a rather noble cause, one should admit, the head of state has been purportedly discontent with the outcomes of this dubious undertaking. Though the national identity debate proved to be a complete failure, as numerous public associations and political figures both in France and abroad accused it of becoming a tool of anti-Muslim rhetoric administered from the very bully pulpit of the Fifth Republic, French authorities believe that they have not exhausted their imagination yet.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to deprive of French nationality any person of foreign origin having attempted to take the life of a public servant was met first with skepticism, then with fear and lastly with intransigence. Though many concur that the main purpose of this ambiguous statement might have been to deflect the attention of the French people from more pressing bread-and-butter issues of their everyday lives, this idea was picked up rather eagerly by both Sarkozy’s supporters and opponents.
In a month’s time, the UMP ruling party and the current government headed by a serene and cautious François Fillon have been taken hostage to the fleeting, light-mindedly ventured attempt of the President to score political points. The process was further compounded by a series of statements made by acting ministers, such as Hervé Morin, responsible for defense, and Bernard Kouchner, a former socialist appointed minister of foreign affairs, whose track record includes being the co-founder of Doctors without Borders and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Kosovo. The former is now widely thought to be willing to leave his ministerial office, as the security-driven agenda promoted by Sarkozy and his interior minister Brice Hortefeux does not fall in quite well with the preaching of his own center-right party, the New Center.
As regards Bernard Kouchner who has hitherto found himself quite comfortable serving in the right-wing government, he went so far as to say that he had seriously considered a possibility of asking for his resignation because of the recent evictions of Roma from French soil. Indeed, for a person closely involved with humanitarian activities for most of his adult life, to be associated with such initiatives is tantamount to renounce all his past experiences as an enlightened promoter of compassion.
Another stone in the direction of the astonished public was flung by Christian Estrosi, minister of industry since 2009, who suggested that mayors be punished for their inability to ensure security and public order, despite the fact that under the French system of decentralized governance, the state cannot punish or reward popularly elected mayors, except in urgent circumstances by proxy of prefects.
Where Prime Minister François Fillon tried to neutralize the nascent controversy by nipping it in the bud with his reassuring words and calls for calm, Jean-François Copé, who now leads the UMP group in the National Assembly, took up the defense of Nicolas Sarkozy’s initial arguments, as though the President had been asking for such a favor.
One has the right to actually wonder if the current imbroglio for which the President is the sole person to be made accountable has not been used by his political contenders to disparage his credibility by taking the chestnuts out of the fire with the hands of Sarkozy’s faithful associates. The answer seems to be negative, since in the current state of France’s affairs resembling an inchoate chaos no such plot might have been hatched so rapidly and mightily.
On the other hand, the main opposition party of the socialists is now trying to obscure its own disunity by collectively chastising Sarkozy’s endeavors and his ministers’ unchecked excesses. The recent summer school of the Socialist Party in La Rochelle, where both Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry strenuously criticized the hardliners in the UMP, presented itself as a perfect occasion for the opposing socialist camp to make a difference.
One should admit, though, that it is not too fair to play on the opponent’s mistakes without proposing a viable alternative that would be feasible both financially and psychologically for a country like France, so solidly attached to equality and non-discrimination. Most harsh criticisms proffered by the socialists look more like the attempts of some individual party members to hype themselves in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, in which the Socialist Party is supposed to field a compromise candidate. However noble and wholehearted this promise may seem to party members themselves, the expected primary will certainly see more than a tough competition tinged with invectives and foul play.
Whatever continuation the ongoing security debate, or rather a collection of security-related monologues, might have, one can draw two major conclusions from the present-day chaotic state of affairs in the birthplace of liberty, equality and fraternity.
First, dangerous divisions in the government and ruling party, to be only exaggerated by an ever growing war machine of the socialists bent on defeating their rivals in 2012 and all the way down the road to that ultimate goal, may slow down or even impede the reformist efforts of French authorities. What is worse, since the president cannot be dismissed, the government – this one or any other in the future – may end up with a complete aversion to the idea of reforming anything at all. Thus, the so much needed reform of public spending bound up with a thorough revision of the pension and tax systems may never come to pass, which means that France’s public deficit will only grow, and this is full of dire consequences for the whole of Europe.
Second, with the unrelenting growth of tensions between the UMP and the socialists, both sides might wish to outdo each other by putting forward more outlandish proposals than the ones made by their adversaries. This may lead to an all-out disillusionment with both parties, since Muslims will be further offended, at a time when hardworking citizens additionally overburdened and ordinary observers watching the news every day are repulsed by an unending warfare for mere political gains. The only side to benefit from this state of play is the ultra-nationalist National Front, whose current leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once landed into the second round of the 2002 presidential election, outdoing the socialists at half-strength. It should be remembered that his bemusing success was mostly due to the same situation as we are seeing now, when the two sides of the political spectrum – represented by a haggard president living with a defiant prime minister since 1997 and this prime minister attacked by his own party – did not manage to yield impressive results because of their internal plights.
Even if the present-day rulers of France were to recognize the extent to which Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party may be dangerous to their political clout, it would most probably lead to the locking of the vicious cycle in which inaction engenders an even bigger inaction, as soon as glum forebodings and a fear of change gain the upper hand over the political will. It is just to say that if the French elite are once more obsessed with defeating the National Front’s candidate in the next major showdown, the momentum will be lost for the vital reforms France has recently embarked upon.
What is characteristic of France’s turmoil which is still far from being efficiently dealt with is that the united Europe is totally absent from the internal debate, since it stands a little chance of changing anything for the better. Whether one likes it or not, the aggrandizement of France’s problems is quite likely to diminish the importance of Europe in the eyes of whoever is to rule over France in the near future, just as it happened to Great Britain with the rise of the Conservative Party to ascendancy in May 2010. And this is not the worst-case scenario, as some may think in Europe, as the triumph of the National Front playing a zero-sum game with its political competitors, which means that every failure to deliver on behalf of either of the classic giants, counts as a victory for ultra-nationalists, should be regarded as the end of France in Europe.
Jean-Marie Le Pen and later the one to succeed him, be it his daughter Marine or long-time comrade Bruno Gollnisch, would certainly demonstrate much more alacrity in bringing the anti-immigrant rhetoric to a head than Nicolas Sarkozy and his government. This outcome, however distant and implausible it may seem a bit less than two years before the next presidential election, might result from the short-sighted policies of both socialists and UMP conservatives, who, instead of providing for a balanced and fair competition based on their respective ideologies and practical approaches, are now indulging in an exchange of criticisms and accusations.
It certainly takes a courageous person elected to public office to lead his country through a troubled period of its history, just to let it see the light of its own revival after a long and tiresome journey into uncertainty. Whatever Sarkozy’s critics may say of his mercurial character and unpredictable moves playing into the hands of his outspoken adversaries, he has never shown a single sign of weakness or backed out of his proclaimed goals. What he lacks is the ability to couch one’s thoughts in softer terms while meaning the same thing. If anything, it is also hard to accuse him of being too straightforward, as his straightforwardness correlates with what the French people expect of him – a determination and a courage not seen in Jacques Chirac’s presidency. The best way out of this quandary might be for all French citizens to help their president do what he is supposed to do, including the ones on the other side of the barricades.
Pride and prejudice have never fully disappeared from the French political life since Charles de Gaulle, who stabilized the system by making a president the one to stand above the fray and no longer depend on political parties’ endless quarrels. They will not disappear any time in the future. What a wise politician should do when confronted with these inalienable elements of navigation in the unforgiving world of politics is to turn pride to the benefit of the country, by making it the property of the whole nation, and to disarm prejudice by taking teeth out of its inveterate hostility towards its victims. This is a formidable task, and no person can take it up single-handedly in the era when a political personage is held hostage to his portrayal in the media, which are rarely fully unbiased.
As long as France remains divided, it will be engulfed in unceasing debates about what is right and what is wrong, who is to blame and who is the victim, who is more corrupt and who rents a service apartment above the means of the public purse. Security is a serious challenge and may only be handled with lucid thoughts. Unity is a far more serious one and requires the lucid mind of the whole nation.