The polling stations have been open for over five hours now and the French people have started voting in the first round of Presidential elections after a campaign that was viewed by some as unprecedentedly energetic, though I have to say it struck me as lacklustre. As anyone who has been reading my occasional posts on the subject will know I am supporting Ségolène Royal, though more out of opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy than any enthusiasm for the potential first Presidente. It is a common accusation levelled at those on the left that they define themselves more by what they oppose than what they support, and in this election that is definitely the case. There are many on the left that are aghast at the prospect of having to vote for Royal - and many of them have switched over to the Centrist candidate François Bayrou - mainly because of questions of competence. There have been a few gaffes, such as declaring that she supported Quebecois separatism, meeting Hizbollah (where an embarrassing, campaign-destroying quote was waiting to happen), and, more recently a failure to realise that the Taleban were no longer running Afghanistan. Whether this renders her unfit for office is debatable but it is not as if she will be running everything in a dictatorial fashion. She has surrounded herself with many of the Socialist Party old guard, such as former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, her partner and Party chairman François Hollande and Mitterand's culture minister Jack Lang. They may be guilty of cleaving to old ways but their records in goverment under both Mitterand and Chirac are reassuring.
The main reason so many people are voting for Royal however is because of a revulsion for the candidature of Sarkozy. There has never been a personality in French politics that polarises in a way that Sarkozy does - not even Chirac and Le Pen have managed to raise such strong feelings among French people. Walking past a number of election posters in the Marais last Monday morning, I noticed a strong smell of piss right where Sarkozy's face, embellished with a Hitler moustache, stood. Sarkozy comes from the Millwall school of politics - it's not quite 'everyone hates us and we don't care' but half of everyone does. He is a ruthlessly ambitious and manipulative politician who shafted his own boss Charles Pasqua to take his place as candidate for Mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine at the age of 28, while Pasqua was hospitalised. Sarkozy boasted at the time of fucking everybody over.
Sarkozy is popular in the English-speaking world because many see him as the reforming economic liberal that will regenerate France's sluggish, sclerotic economy, though many Anglophone liberals - including The Economist which is nonetheless supporting him - have cast cold water on his liberal credentials. He is an old-style Gaullist mercantilist and though he certainly is more of a liberal cut than Royal or Bayrou, there is no guarantee that he will implement sweeping reforms (nor that Royal won't - campaigning on an economic reform ticket in France just doesn't happen, it's like evoking gun control in a US election or abortion rights in an Irish one: electoral suicide). Sarko might see himself as the sort of authoritarian capable of facing down his opponents on the French street but his years as Minister for the Interior have shown him to be quite an inept governor, inflaming already delicate situations in the banlieue with the use of insensitive language such as racaille and Kärcher (his supporters point out that he targeted specific groups with these words but the gross assumption he made in saying them to people that take exception at being spoken down to calls into question his ability to rule effectively). Sarkozy has also manipulated crime statistics according to his needs and there is the old Gaullist whiff of corruption around him, particularly the recent allegations that he has made a deal with Chirac to give him immunity from prosecution for corruption after the current President leaves office.
Sarkozy is popular with certain French people for different reasons; there are among his supporters people that see in him the impetus for economic change, but many more are swayed by his tough stand on immigration and law and order. He is in effect, a sublimation of the racism of many French people, a more acceptable version of the Front National's unelectable huckstering and racial policies. Though I am not fully convinced that Sarkozy is racist, he certainly has no qualms about playing the racial card and his proposed 'Ministry for Immigration and Integration' has an unpleasant whiff of Vichy-era administration about it. Some of his English-speaking supporters prefer to soft-pedal his lurches to the far right; in a supremely mendacious article in the International Herald Tribune last Monday, John Vinocur dismisses worries about this, claiming that such policies were 'unscary enough' when implemented in the Netherlands and Denmark. The very opposite is true, and in both countries those measures followed the accession of the far right to coalition governments. Supporting Sarkozy's economic policies while ignoring his social policies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something that could well prove to be irreversible. Economic reform is all very well - if it comes - but it will be to nought if large parts of French cities are turned irrevocably into no-go areas, drawn out on class and racial lines. Economic damage is relatively easy to rectify, societal damage a good deal more difficult. What Sarkozy is doing in effect is consigning Le Pen and the far right to history by stealing their thunder, in much the same way as Blair and New Labour rendered the Conservatives redundant. The worry is that a trend will be established for authoritarian government in Europe (and a trend for 'selective immigration' of the sort proposed by Sarkozy). The US has already seen its institutions being threatened by six years of rogue governance by the Bush administration and it will be picking up the pieces for a long time to come. For the same thing to happen in Europe would be disastrous. That is why a vote for Royal is better for France, and Europe.
While much anti-Sarkozy rhetoric is hysterical and disproportionate, many of the arguments against him are sound; here is a sober critique of the man from the responsible Edwy Plenel, editor-in-chief of Le Monde, a newspaper that would not be entirely at odds with Sarkozy's economic program but which sees the real danger to France's institutions and to the social fabric of the country.