Sarkozy pledges to 'save European way of life'

Six weeks ahead of elections, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to appeal to far right voters by vowing to crack down on immigration to France. 

Francois Mori/AP
France's President and candidate for the upcoming elections, Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his speech during a meeting in Villepinte, north of Paris, France, as part of his electoral campaign, Sunday, March 11.

So now, Nicolas Sarkozy is – maybe – going to close France to the rest of Europe.

In a grand reelection rally last night, the French president threatened last night to end French participation in Europe's free travel zone should the continent fail to tighten its borders. Lax controls and illegal immigrants threaten an “implosion of Europe” Mr. Sarkozy said, only days after saying France has too many foreigners.

Last night’s cry from the president at a rally of more than 50,000 was to “save the European way of life” threatened by illegals and globalization. Both themes are the chief points of the far right nationalist Marine Le Pen; at one point Sarkozy beseeched the crowd to "help" save a France in crisis. He also proposed a protectionist “buy European” plan that would allow only European contractors to bid for European infrastructure building, and said that if it failed, he would make it apply only to France. 

Sarkozy, who lags behind socialist candidate Francois Hollande, is seeking to capture the votes of Ms. Le Pen's supporters while keeping the faith of France's political center, six weeks ahead of the April 22 national elections. 

Sarkozy warned that if the EU doesn't deal with illegal immigration, France may leave the Schengen zone, the 25-nation free-travel area that is considered a crowning achievement of the post-war European project. In the past two years, France has pushed Italy and Spain to more closely guard their borders from illegals. 

Sarkozy has played this card before

In election-season France, the question may not be whether anyone is listening, but whether anyone is believing.

“This is not serious; he’s not going to do this Schengen proposal. It’s his [Sarkozy’s] last chance to raise his poll numbers,” says Arun Kapil, a political scientist at Catholic University in Paris. “This is another play for the extreme right. He’s gone for anti-immigration and now the anti-Europe wing of Le Pen. If he’s elected this will all be forgotten.” 

In his triumphant election bid five years ago, Sarkozy, then interior minister, made it sound like France was going to lock its borders and toss the keys into the Mediterranean. The rhetoric was new, sharp, and strict, giving an impression that few Africans or Arabs seeking to feast on social security and health benefits would be able to get their papers for a French work visa. Amid a small firestorm, a controversial "ministry for national identity" was formed, seen as a sop to the far right. 

Yet studies and statistics show that immigration to France has remained steady at 180,000 to 200,000 new immigrants a year, similar to figures in 2007. Under Sarkozy, the rapid rise in French immigration during the 1980s and 1990s leveled out, but did not lessen. He also brought an end to the impression that France is an easy migration destination paved with golden streets.

In 2010, without much comment, the ministry for national identity was folded into the immigration and integration office after an effort by the ruling party to spark a debate on "national identity" generated little public enthusiasm. 

A pastor at a Protestant church in Paris who has seen a rise in African members said yesterday ahead of the Sarkozy rally, “Immigrants come here with dreams. But those are quickly lost. Life here is hard. There are few jobs. Migrants find themselves in the same kind of poverty they thought they were escaping, and sometimes it is worse. That’s one reason they come to us."

Lackluster response in the polls

The Sarkozy plan for "buy European" is inspired by a US "buy American" plan first proposed by former president Herbert Hoover that American politicians have periodically revived.

Sarkozy’s decision to play the right-wing or nationalist card is widely perceived as a vote-generating tactic ahead of the election. He is running behind Mr. Hollande, but ahead of Le Pen. As a result, he is attacking the left, saying Hollande is a lightweight who doesn’t love France, and appealing to the right, claiming his ruling party is the party of Joan of Arc, the symbol of the National Front.

Meanwhile, Le Pen is mercilessly attacking, laughing at, and scorning the president in a tone and language that the French president is unaccustomed to in the French mainstream media. 

In the last two weeks, as most of Europe worried about the euro crisis and unemployment, the biggest subject in French media was "halal" meat. Le Pen said that Paris shops carried only meat ritually slaughtered for Muslims. This was untrue, and Sarkozy at first duly corrected it, stating that only 2.5 percent of the bovine fruits were halal. But as the issue got traction, Sarkozy suddenly called for laws governing all meat to be butchered transparently. Then his aides blew the issue into a tempest by saying that should Hollande be elected, all local municipalities in France would force schoolchildren to eat halal meat. 

Still, for all his vote-garnering messages, Sarkozy is not appreciably rising in the polls, at least not yet. He is expected to defeat Le Pen in round one of the elections, but in the second round on May 5, polls show Sarkozy 10 to 11 points behind Hollande. 

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