Sarkozy’s racist legacy

June 8, 2012 — Comment

Written by Graham Murray

Graham Murray reports on the ‘normalisation’ of extreme Right politics in France.

The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy on 6 May 2012 should be celebrated as a victory against Islamophobia and racism. No other French presidential candidate from ‘mainstream’ politics tapped into the ideology of the far Right to the extent that Sarkozy did. In an unashamed bid to seduce Front National (FN) voters for whom he expressed his ‘respect’, Sarkozy effectively became the Petri dish of ‘Lepenism’. The discourse of the FN, once anathema to so-called French ‘republican values’ was ‘normalised’ under Sarkozy’s watch: from immigration to opposing the right to vote for immigrants, from France’s Christian roots to Halal meat and, of course, the dreaded burqa, Sarkozy – himself the son of an immigrant – borrowed the divisive and hateful discourse of the extreme Right and somehow believed that his fake ‘Lepenism’ would pass off for the genuine item.

Ultimately, however, Sarkozy’s achievement was to give credibility to the ideology of the far Right, and the timing was perfect: Marine Le Pen’s shrewd and polished style was the antithesis of her father’s provocative, vicious bulldog persona. Marine chose the well-trodden path of contemporary far-Right parties, distancing herself from her father’s apparent anti-Semitism and focusing instead on Islam and immigration. When Sarkozy attempted to tag onto one of Marine Le Pen’s hate campaigns and declared that the ‘principle subject of concern in the discussions of the French people … is this question of Halal meat’ even some of his own Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party members cringed. Satirists milked Sarkozy’s madness, with one cartoonist portraying closed factories, tax breaks for the rich, high petrol prices and deteriorating public services, all stamped with the word ‘Halal’, as if the latter really mattered more than the fundamental issues of the day. The 2011 law banning the wearing of the burqa was clearly an act of cynical Islamophobia which sought to attract FN voters rather than tackle a real ‘problem’. While France is home to five million Muslims, fewer than 2,000 of the country’s Muslim women are believed to wear a face veil.

Sarkozy surrounded himself with likeminded provocateurs in his bid to woo FN supporters. Interior Minister Claude Guéant provoked outrage when he told right-wing students ‘all civilisations are not equal’, a statement whose absurdity was mocked even by the FN. It was perhaps an ‘initiative’ of Sarkozy’s, Minister for Immigration, Integration and National Identity, Eric Besson that marked the nadir of Sarkozy’s presidency. With Sarkozy’s backing, Besson managed to perfectly combine the ridiculous and the reactionary when he launched a series of town hall meetings across France to discuss and define French national identity. The national identity ‘debate’ turned into a nefarious conduit for racism and Islamophobia and was even criticised by UMP politicians. But Sarkozy expressed ‘very strong support’ for Besson and criticised his detractors. In 2010, the then Interior Minister and Sarkozy’s friend and ally, Brice Hortefeux was fined for making racist comments about a young UMP activist of Algerian origin. In a video clip which was circulated on the internet a woman is heard to say of the activist: ‘He is one of us … he is our little Arab’, to which Hortefeux apparently responds, ‘We always need one. It’s when there are lots of them that there are problems.’

Joker of the pack

Sarkozy played the French national identity card (he created the chillingly named and short-lived Ministry of Immigration and National Identity), the anti-multiculturalism card, the Christian values card, the anti-immigration card, the anti-right-to-vote-for-immigrants card – the whole ‘Lepenist’ pack. But in the end, Sarkozy looked like a joker and the FN won hands-down. When Marine Le Pen spoke of the ‘Islamisation de la France’; Sarkozy, rather than combatting such fear-mongering, jumped on the bandwagon and vowed to defend France’s secularism; he demonised the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan and claimed that 700 French mosques had expressed support for Francois Hollande. ‘The Socialist Party supports the right to vote for foreigners,’ Sarkozy warned, in a bid to win over those who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election. But he omitted to remind the French public that in 2005 he was personally in favour of giving foreigners the right to vote in municipal elections. Attempting to explain his inconsistency on the question, Sarkozy claimed there was a now ’un risque communautaire, an allusion to the French aversion to multiculturalism and distinct ethnic minority communities which it views as a threat to national unity.

It soon became clear that Sarkozy’s strategy was backfiring. The skilful Marine Le Pen gained almost 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections. And in the run-off, Sarkozy was beaten by Francois Hollande. The former president’s legacy is that he brought ‘Lepenism’ into the mainstream and contributed towards what has become known as the ‘la normalisation’ of the FN.

The French Left are still clinking their champagne glasses, but it is the FN that may, in the long run, be the true winners of this election. Their game plan is simple: let Hollande beat Sarkozy, let the UMP quarrel and splinter, let the crisis bring down Hollande and then prepare for power. The idea would have sounded far-fetched in a different époque, but this is post 9/11, economically depressed 2012 when even Greece’s extreme Right Golden Dawn party is able to attract seven per cent of the vote and openly Islamophobic political parties such as Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), are on the rise throughout Europe.

Thanks to Sarkozy, Marine Le Pen’s plans to take power one day appear to be alarmingly realistic.

Graham Murray is an English teacher based in Geneva.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

Comments

June 10, 2012
Roland:

Just a theoretical question before i start deconstructing the core notions in this article,that is worth thinking about. Would a member of the “institute of race relations” ever write that racism is going down? Of course not, it would defeat their purpose of existence.Donations or whatever keeps them afloat would dry up. So every time you read something like this,racism is going up never down. Which incidentally it has been doing ever since the end of WW2.All you see is less racism not more.The FN and other groups that are now labeled “extreme right’ which is also completely arbitrary,cannot be openly racist because the whole notion is rejected by the mainstream as irrational hateful and scientifically unsound.Discrimination of foreigners is something that will always exist so long as we have nation states and welfare systems.It’s about rights and who deserves them and who doesn’t.A foreigner who has not paid taxes or otherwise has contributed what is his right to the social and economic wealth of such a nation? Often achieved through struggle ,warfare,and the payment of lots of taxes over various generations? We are also presented with the odd notion that religion and lifestyle choices equal race.So if I’m discriminated against because of my lifestyle choice,say covering myself in cow dung to please the cow deity,and I can’t get a job or people avoid sitting next to me on the bus or the driver doesn’t want to let me in that it is not my fault it’s the people who do not like the smell of cow dung that are wrong and they should adapt to my lifestyle choice or they are cow dung-o-phobic.We must have a clear distinction between things we cannot change such as our skin color or our sexuality,or our gender from things we can change that are a choice, such as religious preferences and lifestyle choices which may or may not be acceptable to the majority.IF being an Arab is not acceptable then change and become French.You call yourself Pierre instead of Abdullah. People have done this and have seen a remarkable increase in their chances of finding employment in France.Now if you can’t stand this and you think being Arab is fundamental to who you are then moving to a Arab state is the best course of action to take.

June 10, 2012
Roland:

The current president of France Francois Hollande is also a immigrant as is Sarkozy.His ancestors were as his last name hints at, Dutch.They probably moved to France in the late 18th to 19th century.But no one not even himself considers himself to be Dutch he is French.He has given up as did his ancestors their “Dutchness” and exchanged it for ” Frenchness”.And he became president of France.What French people ask is I believe very reasonable, that if you want to enjoy the fruits of France society we ask that you become part of France and thus prefer our culture , laws and language above those of any other.That is what French people left and right i believe, ask and it’s not unreasonable or unjust to do so.And again if you don’t like it or want it then you are free to move to a society that does accept your lifestyle choices.

June 11, 2012
Carol:

Reading through Graham Murray’s excellent report I am reminded of Achille Mbembe’s broader commentary about 21st century French politics in his essay, ‘Figures of Multiplicity: Can France Reinvent its Identity?’ (in, Frenchness and the African Diaspora, 2009). In Mbembe’s view, the ‘normalisation’ of extreme Right politics, Islamophobia and widespread racial discrimination are symptoms of the wider (European) politics of fear, where politicians like Sarkozy and Le Pen have continuously (and increasingly) stoked up and exacerbated fears of an imaginary enemy in the hope of re-legitimizing a climate of cultural violence and state racism towards ‘minoritized’ communities (a stance that bears all the hallmarks of the types of rights segmentation which once thrived throughout the colonial era). Mbembe states: “The major shift at the beginning of this century has been to extend to nonwhite French citizens the disgraceful treatment previously inflicted on colonial subjects and, in our own time, on migrants, refugees, and those called simply “aliens”. As in South Africa under apartheid, the idea is to exacerbate antagonisms by transforming into scapegoats a class of “intruders” or sans-parts whom one wishes to cast out of the human community.” Let’s hope that Hollande’s new Socialist government has the courage to end Sarkozy’s racist ideology of manipulating resentments towards subalterns in favour of a new, positive and pluralist discourse on multiculturalism and democratic citizenship that respects and embraces diversity.

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