Observing French politics in the run-up to next spring’s presidential elections is like watching one of those slow-motion films of controlled car crashes in which a dummy and its vehicle are rammed into a wall. Nicolas Sarkozy is the dummy, who will make one last ungainly gesticulation as he lurches into catastrophe, and the coalition of liberals, centrists, free-marketeers, pro-Americans and careerists that carried him to power in 2007 is splintering as the laws of political aerodynamics wrench it apart.
Two words explain this outcome: Le Pen. In 2002, the now governing party, the UMP, was created between the two rounds of the presidential election to support Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Ten years later, the UMP (same acronym, different name) will collapse because of the appointment in January of Marine Le Pen as her father’s successor. As Le Pen senior joked at the time, ‘The nasty scapegoat has been replaced by a lovable little kid’. Her election is the product of a long-term strategy, conceived by the FN’s brightest minds — and there are many of them — to de-demonise the party.
This has worked spectacularly. Marine Le Pen is almost as brilliant a speaker as her father, and much more likeable. Some of her one-liners have left the political class gasping with envy. At dinner on Monday, I found myself chatting to one of François Mitterrand’s prime ministers, a lifelong Socialist, who quoted admiringly Marine’s tart denunciation of free trade, always a popular cause in France: ‘Globalisation means getting slaves to make things abroad to sell to unemployed people here.’ ‘She’s brilliant,’ exclaimed the former boss of Matignon, ‘and it’s very dangerous.’ Another good barb of Le Pen’s was her speculation about what ‘hormonal rush’ must have led Sarkozy, a man who did his military service in a Paris office, to launch two wars in a month, in Libya and Ivory Coast.
Every opinion poll now indicates that Le Pen will beat the other right-wing candidates in the first round and win 20 to 25 per cent of the electorate. So the left is likely to re-take the Elysée for the first time since 1995: thanks to liberal and centrist votes, a Le Pen victory in the second round is impossible. Just as Jean-Marie destroyed the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, in 2002, Marine will destroy Sarkozy and the whole centre-right in 2012.
Lucid about the inevitable, members of the UMP have been scrambling to leap out of the car. Last week, the centrist leader, Jean-Louis Borloo, left the coalition and effectively proclaimed his own candidacy for 2012. Within the UMP, a new caucus, the Popular Right, was created in January to get the right ‘back to basics’. Leading figures within this movement are privately in despair at the wasted opportunity of the Sarkozy years. Sarkozy is a classic case of a politician elected by the right who pursues the policies of the left. He parked his tanks on Le Pen’s lawn during the 2007 campaign only to appoint leftists to ministerial positions (Bernard Kouchner to the Quai d’Orsay, Frédéric Mitterrand to Culture). He promised to tackle law and order and to protect France from globalisation but cut tax on corporations and forced people to work two extra years before getting a pension.
Sarkozy’s attempts at electioneering are only making things worse. Last month, his right-hand man, the new minister of the interior, Claude Guéant, announced that immigration would be controlled. Why was this electoral promise not implemented five years ago? Sarkozy has also himself contributed to the de-demonisation of the National Front by abandoning the policy of the ‘Republican Front’, under which right-wing voters were encouraged to vote for left-wing candidates if it would prevent a National Front victory.
Amid all this chaos, the ban on the burqa, which came into force on Monday, and which have been heavily reported in the British media but not in the French, is an irrelevance. The protests against the law have amounted to two women being photographed by 50 journalists in front of Notre Dame. There is a consensus in France behind the country’s century-old laws on secularism. There is also a consensus that Britain has been idiotic to allow multiculturalism to get so far out of control that Monday’s demonstration by veiled women outside the French embassy in London, demanding sharia law for France, was bigger than the one in Paris demanding the right to dress up in a sheet.
And Sarkozy? Like his friend Tony Blair, he will have destroyed the party that took him to power; also like Blair, he is happier in America than Europe. The Elysée was only ever a stepping-stone to greater things. Maybe he will swap seats with one of the likely Socialist candidates, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He would probably feel more at home in the glass and steel of the IMF than in the baroque glory of the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The ungrateful French, meanwhile, can go hang.