Following his decisive election as president of France on Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy listed the values of a particular form of right wing populism in whose tradition he stands. They were work, authority, morality, respect, merit and national identity.
Sarkozy’s victory was greeted positively by business and political leaders who see it as an opportunity for France to “modernise” and to unblock the process of neoliberal reform in the European Union (EU) – which has stalled since France voted against the EU constitution in the 2005 referendum.
But how did a member of such an unpopular government, under the discredited presidency of Jacques Chirac, manage to defeat the left in a country that has seen so many radical movements emerge over the past few years?
Part of the answer lies with Sarkozy himself, who won control of the right wing UMP party machine from Jacques Chirac and proclaimed himself the champion of “rupture”.
This meant a break with the retreats and compromises of the right, which has consistently failed to win lasting victories against the labour movement. “I want to put an end to repentance,” he announced on election night, “which is a form of self hatred.”
In contrast to Sarkozy’s decisive leadership, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal failed to galvanise the widespread opposition to Sarkozy into a dynamic movement capable of seizing the initiative from him.
Her overtures to the centre-right politician François Bayrou between the two rounds of the election disoriented her supporters, most of who do not want an alliance with the moderate right. Despite the failure of Royal’s strategy, leading figures within the Socialist Party will now push for closer links with the centre-right.
This election is a turning point, if only because for the first time in three decades a member of an outgoing government has won an election.
Sarkozy has understood that in a polarised political environment, decisive solutions can win support.
He will now attempt to push through his pro-business, law and order programme of tax cuts for the rich, attacks on workers and repression of immigrants.
He plans to get a version of the neoliberal EU constitution adopted by parliament.
He is set to take on the unions with plans to scrap the 35 hour week by lifting restrictions on overtime, making it easier for workers to be sacked, imposing secret ballots after eight days of strike action in the public sector, in schools and in universities, and obliging transport and other public sector workers to provide a “minimum service” during strikes.
Sarkozy also plans to introduce a ministry of “immigration and national identity” which will fix quotas on the numbers of immigrants to France, and decide who among them has “a vocation” to become French.
Repeat offenders will be subject to a policy of “three strikes and you’re out” and the unemployed will be denied benefits if they turn down more than two jobs for which they are qualified.
He is a tougher opponent than his predecessors, but he also knows that his strategy is high risk. In 2005, as interior minister, his attempts to take on the population of France’s impoverished suburbs led to a three week long urban uprising.
The last three governments of the right were all defeated by powerful anti-neoliberal movements.
Sarkozy is not interested in simply implementing a programme of reactionary measures. He wants to win decisive political victories over these movements.
The Socialist Party’s accommodation with the market makes his task easier.
It places great responsibility on the diverse but significant forces of the radical left – who won a combined vote of well over three million in the first round of the presidential elections – to give coherent political expression to the movement whose resistance has exerted such an influence over the past decade.
The next electoral test for the left will be the parliamentary elections in June. Other tests are sure to follow.
Jim Wolfreys is the author of France In Revolt in International Socialism Journal 206, Winter 2006. Available at www.isj.org.uk