Sunday 13 May 2012

In defence of Nicolas Sarkozy

French and foreign commentators have called it ‘a return to normality’, the election of Francois Hollande, the next French president who calls himself ‘Mister Normal’. But what is normality in the French context? 
In 1995 the French movie ‘La Haine’ came to German cinemas and I was shocked. The poverty and discrimination portrayed in the movie seemed unbearable. The response of the ‘normal’ French political class to the conditions of the underclasses has always favoured two strategies: The main conservative movement UMP would simply refuse to talk about the challenges of youth unemployment, the racial tensions in the suburbs and large scale discrimination of black and Muslim youth, hoping it would go away. 
In contrast, the socialist establishment calculated that if people would work less there was more work to go around for everyone. They coupled the introduction of the 35 hour week with stringent new work laws and more regulation which eventually had the opposite effect: employers ended up with fewer yet well protected employees. Companies would hire less because they couldn’t be sure they could lay off in difficult times. The result was one of worsening unemployment, less access to the labour market while those who were in work enjoyed better protection. 
Fast forward to 2007 and Nicolas Sarkozy who refused to accept the cherished presumptions of French politics. He challenged the political establishment in three respects. First, he would talk about the insidious effect of more protection for those who are in work on those who are out of work. Second, he originated outside the elitist school, ENA, from which practically the entire French political class hailed, socialist or otherwise. And he did not conform to the understatement of power and riches so celebrated by the French left and right. The privileged classes from socialist to the old UMP wing never forgave him for this. 
So this is the return to normality that French socialists and some of the UMP celebrate. It is the re-installation of the old political elite, left or right, that have always harboured a sense of entitlement. And it is a return to the old policies that have been tried and failed for the last 30 years. More protection for workers who are in work, while those who are out of work can only aspire to gain one of those precious jobs that sets you up for life. Last but not least, it is a return to the ‘normal’ way in which the French elite cocoons its enormous power in non-ostentatious manners and portrays itself as ‘one of them’ to the French electorate who can only look on from the outside. 
Yet it is a normality that France will come to regret. What France needs is reforms of the labour market, more flexibility, not less, and longer working lives, not shorter. Sarkozy challenged the French establishment and its sense of entitlement. He has lost the battle (although some commentators for The Guardian arrive at a more balanced view). But if France continues on the path of tried and failed policies it will not create opportunities for the underprivileged classes languishing in the suburbs. And make no mistake, another, far more ruthless, challenger is waiting in the wings, Marine Le Pen. 

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