In the weeks leading up to the French presidential election on Sunday, Nicholas Sarkozy was gripped by desperation. Having fallen way behind in the opinion polls, he began to embrace policies that he had earlier rejected, not caring one whit for the inconsistencies he was projecting as a centre-right candidate. His sudden shifts were so stark that one of France’s leading satirical magazines branded him 'Mr Chameleon'.
In the end, ‘Mr Chameleon’ sneaked through to qualify for the runoff, but he finished marginally behind the socialist candidate Francois Hollande. Sarkozy effectively lost ground to the left as well as the far-right, whose candidate Marine Le Pen came in a stunning third, with over 18 percent of the vote. France had evidently had enough of the “flashy Parisian France” that Sarkozy personified. It wants a leader who is less given to globe-trotting and who represents “French France” chic.
The Globe and Mail observed that “a good part of France’s anger was directed at Mr. Sarkozy himself, whose air of haughty luxury, un-presidential emotional outbursts and close relations with his German counterpart have spurred a phenomenon known as l’anti-sarkozysme.”
On the Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey too says it was intensely personal. “Short and pugnacious, intense and vulgar, Sarkozy is not the kind of man with whom many French want to raise a glass of wine… And neither is he one whom they naturally look up to. He never made it to the top of the elite schools that groomed most of the country’s leaders (including Hollande), and early in his presidency he gave the impression that big money with bad taste, or, as the French press would have it, 'bling,' impressed the hell out of him.”
The elections showed up a France whose soul is being torn between left and right, perhaps a reflection of the enormous strains on the eurozone economy that France hasn’t been immune to.
And while the election result may indicate that the country may be moving left in the short term, a more profound cultural shift is likely to drag it right. Fears about the downside of multicularalism and globalisation, which occasionally manifests itself in xenophobia, are beginning to assert themselves, as Le Pen’s dramatic showing testifies.
That trend is discernible in other parts of Europe too. On Monday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned after far-right politician Geert Wilders withdrew critical support for budget cuts to meet European Union deficit limits, thereby forcing an election.
If Hollande does win the runoff election, as he is expected to, it could test the fidelity of the French-German joint respone to the eurozone debt crisis. Under Sarkozy, the two countries were practically in lock step, and the very visible unity of purpose that Angela Merkel and Sarkozy exhibited ended up giving them the tag of ‘Merkozy’: two minds that think as one.
A Hollande victory in the runoff could fundamentally change the current approach to the crisis, which is focussed excessively on austerity, thereby effectively choking off growth. As opposed to Sarkozy (and Merkel), Hollande favours a Keynesian approach – of spending more in the short term to stimulate growth and then cut back on debt over the longer term. But France’s sovereign ratings are already on slippery ground, and the rating agencies’ tolerance level for yet more spending is low.
It’s not all over for Sarkozy, though. Paradoxically, the 18 percent vote secured by Le Pen gives Sarkozy half a chance of harvesting it and putting up a fight in the runoff with Hollande. But that will mean he will have to embrace some of the far-right rhetoric, which represents a change from much of what he stood for.
Yet, it’s a chance that a desperate Mr Chameleon may be willing to take. Whether it will endear him to the French people, who are sick to the gills of him is not so clear.