France worries that unsavory presidential campaign has divided country

Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to play to the far right for votes in the presidential election has changed the French political landscape in a way many consider damaging.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
A woman walks past official campaign posters for French President and UMP political party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (r.) and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande (l.) displayed on electoral panels in Tulle, May 4. France goes to the polls on Sunday in the second round of its presidential election.

Creating a small sensation on the eve of French presidential elections, Francois Bayrou – a candidate himself until a few weeks ago – announced he would vote for Socialist Francois Hollande in elections tomorrow. The "centrist" said that although he disagrees with Mr. Hollande’s economic platform, the national unity that the frontrunner stresses is more important. 

Bayrou's move underscores what has become a central issue in French elections: the divisive atmosphere of the campaign and the rise of speech that often stigmatizes minorities.  And his support is not insignificant, as he scored 9 percent of votes in the first round.

The rise of the far right has forced President Nicolas Sarkozy to fish ardently in waters previously considered forbidden in polite society for a chance at re-election. He needs the voters of Marine Le Pen, the anti-Islam anti-Europe, nationalist, far-right candidate who defied expectations in the first round, scoring 18 percent of the vote.

At his May 1 rally in Paris, Sarkozy spoke as the champion of “real labor” – veiled words of approbation for those on welfare, or without jobs. His team earlier leaked a false rumor that challenger Francois Hollande was the favorite of “700 mosques” in France. He has described someone in public as “someone who looks like a Muslim” and has legitimized the far-right by encouraging their vote.

Much has been made in this election campaign about the personal dislike French feel for Sarkozy's flamboyant style. But the longer term issue for France, now being raised by figures on both the left and the traditional right, is his ongoing appeal to base instincts and voters' fears.

Articulating his reason for backing Hollande, which has caused outrage among some in his camp, Bayrou said today, "The line that Nicholas Sarkozy chose is violent. It is in contradiction to our values and Gaullist values as well as those of the republicans and the social right.”

Unsurprisingly, the left has been critical as well, coining the term “Sarkozyism” to describe antagonizing techniques that create divisions among different sections of society. It is a “technique which consists of pitting the French against one another,” as Paul Quilès, a former Socialist minister, has said.

But in recent weeks even the traditional right has climbed on board. While it is often pro-business and ardently capitalist, it has a deep sense of the polite decorum and enlightenment values of a society where “liberty, equality, and fraternity” is enshrined on every government building. Dominique de Villepin, a member of this camp and former prime minister in Sarkozy's party, recently called the president’s tactic of appealing to voters' base instincts “putrid.”

“The ruling party strategy under Sarkozy has been to pit the unemployed and the guy on welfare against each other, the French against minorities, the rich against the poor,” argues Karim Emile Bitar of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “He never seems to address the nation as a whole. It is an electoral strategy of fear mongering with the values of Social Darwinism.”

Where did this tactic come from?

Sarkozy’s presidency did not start this way. In the first phase of his administration, the president filled a number of cabinet posts with minority politicians and reached across the aisle to make Bernard Kouchner, who has served in Socialist administrations, his foreign minister.

But under the guidance of a cadre of strategists and advisors who argued that the way to win elections in Europe today is to join with the far right, the Sarkozy approach began to change. Patrick Buisson, who edited the far-right journal “Minute,” special advisor Henri Guiano, and current interior minister Claude Geant advised the president on initiatives such as the ban on wearing the burqa in public and other projects designed to appeal to what is essentially a conservative nation.

The project reached a head in the summer of 2010, when Sarkozy ordered the round-up of Roma and gave a powerful anti-crime speech in Grenoble aimed at immigrants.

But there is a demographic in France to whom this appeals. Many working class French are bothered by what they see as immigrants or foreigners using France’s welfare system while they work at lower-wage jobs to support themselves.

In the mostly Arab and African suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois outside Paris, Fabienne Hubert pauses while shopping for incense at a local five-and-dime to say she will vote on the far right, if she votes. She is a medical secretary at a local hospital and feels no prejudice about the Africans and Arabs in her neighborhood. 

What she objects to is “unemployed migrants that come to the hospital and ask for expensive help that families that do work are not given. I’m tired of it. They come in and are well-schooled by social workers about their rights. But I have a friend with children whose husband’s business failed. She works long hours, gets no help from the state, and can barely make it. Meanwhile, people who don’t work have a better life.”

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