Farewell Sarkozy: The HOW Matters as Much as WHAT
Five years ago I was working on a research project in Paris when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of France. I stumbled upon the Place de la Concorde (pictured left, click to expand) where giant screens simulcasted his victory speech over Ségolène Royal, whom he had defeated by six percentage points. He was brash; he did not pander to the voters; and he even admitted that he liked America. Meanwhile France suffered from high unemployment, the seams of the European Union were starting to fray; the war in Iraq was dragging on; and violence had marred the Paris suburbs. The atmosphere in the Place de la Concorde was electrifying--compared to the Place de la Bastille, where the Socialists, in contract, were having a wake. The election of Sarkozy was a great success story: son of a Hungarian immigrant who made good. And in France elections had sent a symbol that the nation needed a deep reset. But Sarkozy burned his bridges quickly. Five years later the problems are still festering, and Sarkozy has lost in a close but decisive election to François Hollande. Of course France’s struggles cannot be blamed on Sarkozy alone, just as America’s challenges are not solely because of the actions of George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But rather than showing that he was fixing France’s problems--and in fairness, he had tackled some of France’s most pressing economic and cultural issues--he caved in to pressure from the right and focused on immigration, xenophobia and demagogic fears that a Hollande victory would spook the markets. Meanwhile he appeared perfectly content to be seen in the company of the world's elite. France still suffers from unemployment, its national debt is out of control and a great Western power has lost its way and is becoming irrelevant on global affairs. The challenge the next several years would be huge for any leader, but Sarkozy came across an arrogant and petty politico who would rather hang out with the wealthy and resorted to name calling and insults whenever he was challenged. But on both sides of the pond, citizens feel as if their governments are not working for them, but for the connected few. Sarkozy could not shake that perception and in fact he appeared to relish it. Fair or not, he is the first French president in over 30 years to lose re-election. Citizens will support unpopular ideas if they believe they will benefit in the long run; but they do not want someone in power who treats them with scorn. In the end, how Sarkozy conducted himself, not what he did, contributed to his defeat.