Europe’s on-going economic crisis has so far claimed ten heads of governments. However, Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent defeat in the presidential elections in France need not be entirely attributed to the economy — Sarkozy had lost it a long time ago, even before the socialist François Hollande defeated him.
Leader of the centre-right UMP, Sarkozy defeated the socialist Ségolène Royal (François Hollande’s then partner!) and was elected to a five-year term as president of France in 2007.
At the time of Sarkozy’s election, the French economy, the world’s fifth largest, was faltering, leading George Bush to famously attribute this to the lack of a word for ‘entrepreneur’ in the French language! Already in 2003 the US Congress had ordered French Fries to be renamed ‘Freedom Fries’ in menus, in hysteric protest against French intransigence in the war against Saddam Hussein; now French foreign policy was being pilloried as opportunistic and lacking in principles.
Domestically, questions were cropping up whether France’s 35-work-hours-a-week economy and her generous welfare state were sustainable. In politics, there was much embarrassment: in 2004 PM Alain Juppé was convicted for corruption and received a 14-month suspended prison sentence, and president Jacques Chirac was shamefully, but credibly, accused of embezzling public funds.
Despite forebodings based on his previous performance as interior minister when he used brute force against Arab immigrants, and attempted to destroy laïcité (France’s unique secularism), Sarkozy seemed promising. He wanted France to be strong like America, he vowed to reward ‘those who wake up early’, he was full of energy and wanted to do things ‘at the speed of light’. He pledged to the French on victory day “I won’t betray you, I won’t lie to you and I won’t disappoint you.”
Sarkozy had a great start. His cabinet had eight men and seven women – France had never seen such gender balance at this level. He appointed the socialist Bernard Kouchner (co-founder of Doctors Without Borders) as his minister for foreign and European Affairs. He appointed Rachida Dati, of North African origin, as his justice minister. He created a new international human rights position in his cabinet, and offered it to Rama Tadé, a Muslim woman of Senegalese origin. He pledged that human rights would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy and promised “to reach out to all those in the world … who are persecuted by tyrants and dictators.”
But promise has to translate into performance. During his first visit to Moscow Sarkozy was silent about the ‘intolerable killing of journalists’ in Russia. In 2007, after a meeting with Putin, he turned up drunk for a media conference at the G8 summit in Germany. After the bloody repression of Tibetans in 2008 he rightly threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games if China didn’t start serious talks with the Dalai Lama, but tamely attended the inaugural after French contracts came under threat. He did not heed Kouchner’s advice that effective European intervention was called for in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even as he played an important role in world politics, where once the talk was of human rights, Sarkozy started speaking of ‘relative powers’, holding back and compromising.
After five years in power, Sarkozy leaves France with a record debt of €$1.7 trillion ie €$500 billion more than when he took office. His economic legacy is a 13-year high of 10% unemployment and a Standard & Poor’s downgraded debt rating for his country.
Son of Hungarian immigrants, Sarkozy created a ministry of national identity and started a much needed discussion on what it means to be French. Sadly, as he lacked the vision and authority to give direction to the debate, his steps only unleashed xenophobia against the 5 million French of Arab origin in mainland France. His immigration policy was a mess, and he regretted openly that there were too many foreigners in France. He made the Roma gypsies a hostile target of his action. When his electoral prospects became doubtful he unsuccessfully wooed the voters of the National Front.
Last year, Sarkozy’s cabinet minister Michelle Alliot-Marie foolishly offered French support for the Tunisian security services when the Arab spring demonstrations first began. Alliot-Marie’s partner is believed to have been close to Muammar Gaddafi, and is credited with facilitating French arms trade with that country. Sarkozy’s PM, Francois Fillon accepted free holidays paid for by then Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Sarkozy’s personal credibility also took a beating during his tenure. In a debate about nuclear power, Sarkozy said he went to Fukushima after the nuclear meltdown whereas he went only up to Tokyo; on his Facebook page he posted a fake picture of himself chipping away at the Berlin Wall. Astonishingly, he rehabilitated the tainted Alain Juppe by appointing him his foreign minister. He was not immune to nepotism either and tried to impose his undergraduate son Jean as head of the important business district La Défense. Embarrassingly, at state banquets, as in India and at the Vatican, he was seen frenetically texting with his mobile phone.
He had urged the French to work hard, but his policies benefitted those like L’Oréal’s Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman who it is believed made illegal campaign donations to Sarkozy’s party.
Sarkozy did some good – at home he raised the retirement age to 62, made it harder for public transport workers to strike, and restored some order in the work culture of the nation. He firmly implemented university reforms. As president of the European Union he negotiated a 6 point peace plan between Russia and Georgia. He did the logical thing by reintegrating France into NATO’s military structure. He attempted to create a Mediterranean Union. He took the initiative in Libya to finally fight Gaddafi, but in the moral and financial mess that he leaves France in, these are hardly redeeming factors.