The May 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of the French Republic has up to now produced few formal analyses regarding the ideological nature of the political project for which he was elected, even though a re-foundation of the Left certainly cannot do without serious reflection on the identity of its adversary. The majority of observers have characterised the new head of state and the party who carried him to power, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire/Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), using diverse ideological categories which are either vague, only pertinent in part (“neo-Gaullist”, “ultra-liberal”, “neo-conservative”) or employed for polemical and frankly imaginary purposes (e. g. “fascist”). It is therefore necessary to refine the analysis and also to describe what has become of the French Left, which just experienced a change such as it had undoubtedly never known since the beginning of the fifth Republic, in 1958.
One can therefore begin by saying what the Sarkozy phenomenon is not. It is no longer that Gaullism which corresponded to the political form adopted at a specific moment in history by a right that represented the economic interests of a capitalism still national in structure, relying on state intervention more than it combated it, and which existed during a period of growth still largely in the framework of a mixed public/private economy. Having gotten rid of the last scruples of the Gaullism which persisted in the style of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy is nonetheless not an ultra-liberal, because the French right, as a whole, has never had a sanctified conception of the market. To characterise Sarkozy as simply conservative is likewise unreasonable. While the UMP is allied with the two largest conservative European institutions, the CDU and the British Tories, Sarkozy manages more easily than does Merkel and Cameron the idea of a “break” with the style of government of his right-wing predecessors, in particular as regards questions of institutional practice, as well as the relationship to the citizens, the obligation of office-holders and officials to show results, and – although this remains quite vague – the necessity of having no “taboo” whatsoever on any economic, social or cultural question. He seems also much more permeable than they are to ideas such as multiculturalism, affirmative action or the vote of foreigners at local elections, ideas which are, in France at least, foreign to the culture of the right. In fact, neither the CDU nor the British conservatives derive ideological inspiration from Sarkozy; it is rather he who took his model from them, in a strategic way, by developing for the first time a unified right that integrates all of the right-wing ideological traditions.
This being the case, several right-wing European parties have, even before the presidential elections, indulged in a kind of “Sarkomania”. What have they found that could serve them as a model? First of all, a style: that of an assertive presidentialism, the cult of efficiency, a giantsized ego, and of a leader trying to stage his charisma. On these points, it is Silvio Berlusconi, the head of Forza Italia, who most resembles the French president, whose first-ballot results he greeted by saying: “We support Sarkozy. If he were to be elected, his presidency, associated with that of Merkel, would make Europe more Western (sic) and more Atlantic.” This demonstrates the extent to which the Cavaliere recognises himself more in the style than in the substance. Afterwards, several European parties of the right praised the fact that the French right, with Sarkozy, finally understood itself as such, in a break with the constant tendency of European right-wingers to prefer to call themselves “liberal”, “moderate” or “centrist”.
We have to recall, in order to understand this, that in view of his age and environment, Nicolas Sarkozy has not been marked by the two big historical upheavals that forced the right to hide behind the appropriated term, “collaboration”, and, to a lesser degree, the Algerian war and the colonial wars in general. The founding event that brings him to political consciousness is the rightist reaction to the ideas of May 1968, the benchmark that replaced the Second World War as the event around which ideological positions formed. And that is what earns him a certain sympathy from the German Christian Democrats or from David Cameron, both very conservative on questions of morality, even if they diverge on other questions. For them, Sarkozy symbolises success in the attempt at re-conquest of cultural hegemony set in motion by the right. A sign of this conquest of cultural hegemony is that candidate Sarkozy could assert, with some credibility, that he was a “reader of Gramsci”. In Portugal and in Spain, the Partidos Populares appreciate another aspect of Sarkozy’s tactics: his capacity to deal with the conflict of the “two Frances” that, until very recently, saw a left bloc, heir of the values of the French Revolution, and a rightwing block that had never fully accepted either the victory of the Republic, secularism, or the Rights of Man and Citizen, clash on every point. In Portugal, Paulo Portas had himself elected chairman of the CDS-PP directly by the party’s activists just at the moment of Sarkozy’s victory. We understand better, therefore, how one of his intimate colleagues could have appreciated how “Sarkozy had succeeded in transforming himself into the leader of the synthesis of his party’s diverse tendencies”, but we also see how, without being the representative of any kind of “Sarkolarism”, as Charlie Hebdo thinks he can discern, Portas was interested in posing as the unifier of a right still split between former opponents of the Estado Novo and old Salazarites.
Similarly, Sarkozy’s posture of unifier of a “right without complexes”, which knows both how to manage an opening to the left and a tough stance against the committed left, is of great interest to Mariano Rajoy, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon and the Spanish PP in general. In fact, the Partido Popular has not completely overcome the ties of a certain number of its officials to the Franco period, and remains incapable of really closing the book on the Civil War. In its eyes, Sarkozy represents the necessary overcoming of historical divisions, as well as a model of the charismatic leader that it still needs and who could effect this shift. In Italy, the party that has most exploited Sarkozy’s victory is the Italian National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini. The latter had provoked a polemic by writing a preface to the Italian edition of the French president’s latest work, “Testimonianza”, translated by the old monarchist Fabio Torriero and published by Nuove Idee, which also publishes Alain de Benoist and Aleksandr Dugin as well as Italian neo-fascist authors. Certain observers have thought to infer from this that Sarkozy was making common cause with a fascist party. It is, however, quite the contrary. If the National Alliance devotes to the Sarkozy phenomenon the central section of the first issue of its theoretical journal, called “Con”(servative), it is because it completely identifies itself with Sarkozyism, and with good reason, for it also sees its connection to Sarkozy as consecrating its definitive dissociation from neo-fascism. A dissociation that is actually quite real if we look at the top rank of the party, but which Fini has not completely managed yet to achieve at the rank-and-file level. At this juncture, proposing Sarkozy as a model for its activists also aims at inciting them to make their ideological move in the direction of a real right-wing conservatism, inscribed, however, within the democratic political system.
While admired and now often imitated abroad, Sarkozy is nevertheless not an easily exportable model, because he thinks and acts according to schema proper to the French right. In other words, this right of a return to values that he incorporates has as its specific characteristic the almost complete abolition of the tripartite division of the French right, described definitively in the classic work by Rene Remond, a division between counter-revolution (that is to say, that monarchist, catholic, expressly statist right that is almost unique to France, with the exception of Spain), Orleanism (in other words, the classical, liberal right, first monarchist, then rallied to the Republic, that was generally quite indifferent to the religious question and that represented in the political sphere the interests of business circles) and Bonapartism (the authoritarian right oriented toward a charismatic leader and a strong power relying on a direct relationship between the people and the leaders). The Sarkozyian right attempts a synthesis of these tendencies.
However, the counter-revolutionary right no longer exists, given that Christine Boutin and Philippe Villiers are reactionaries incarnating a moral right that can only affiliate, as far as Villiers Movement for France is concerned, with the parties of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Jean-Marie Dedecker in Dutch-speaking Belgium. And it is because they no longer exist, and because the Republic and secularism as formal values no longer divide France as they did before 1905, that Nicolas Sarkozy can hope to remodel the institutions in the direction of accentuating presidentialism and adjusting the law of 1905 to the situation of 2007, in order to give religion greater visibility within the social space. The Orleanist right that was anti-Gaullist seems to be splitting up either turning into a Social Democracy/Social Christianity that has absorbed the striving to become a third force of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire/Popular Republican Movement (whose posterity exists in the Mouvement démocrate/Democratic Movement of Francois Bayrou) or into classical liberalism, even if different from historical Orleanism in that it no longer reflects as much as it previously had the interests of the bourgeoisie and the large business dynasties, but rather those of a liberal-profession middle class of small entrepreneurs and wage-earners (the “new centre”, composed of the old Bayrou supporters, has now rallied to Sarkozy). In today’s France, the right-wing synthesis built by Sarkozy is above all a Bonapartist and populist right, even if we do not at present know whether we are dealing with an ideological moment that may still change or with a deeper and more durable system.
This plebiscitary democracy, still reinforced by the the massive popularity of the president in the euphoria of the post-election period is mostly embodied in a presidential style: the refusal of the traditional intellectual inferiority complex of the right; the self-assertion of a right of convictions and no longer only of interests; the personalisation of power and intervention in the public debate within a broad spectrum of issues, including those judged “secondary”; and the constant theatrical presentation of the personality of the president and his intimates by a complacent or subjugated media. We encounter in the style of Sarkozy four major components of populism: the assumed ideological contradiction (Europeanised liberalism/protectionism; Atlanticism/ national independence; valorisation of money/defence of the “small folks”); the wish to break with the past (“from now on, everything becomes possible”) and the glorification of modernity which calls on earlier right-wing champions of modernisation and disarms opponents who accuse the right of “archaism”. Finally, and most importantly, the wish to simulate, through the opening up of the government to the “left”, some sort of national unity, which as in all plebiscitary regimes has the function of devaluing ideology and keeping the social question at bay. It is not hard to see what it is in Sarkozy’s model that seduces the European right, namely its seeming capacity to legitimate the liberal order through the very social categories whose objective interest is to combat this order; then, in a more global way, to allow hegemony in society for a combination of representations that marginalise the criticism of that order and the mobilisations aimed at changing it.
The electoral victory of Nicolas Sarkozy was only possible because he succeeded in imposing the right’s political and ideological agenda far beyond its social base. It would be wrong, however, to attribute his success only to his undeniable capacity to analyse the present political moment; the Left, or what calls itself the Left, had really already prepared the terrain for him very effectively It is also in this respect that Sarkozy’s election interests the European rightwing, everywhere preoccupied with securing the hegemony of neoliberal values and profiting from the abandonment by a part of the Left of the goal of social transformation. A strategy that, if successful, will create the foundation for a political life where, as in America, two formations alternate in power, but ultimately represent very similar conceptions and try to remove from public discourse any thinking that addresses social conflict and ideological divergence.