Tue, Sep 21, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Sarkozy chooses dishonor rather than leadership

The French president’s willingness to compromise the nation’s ethics has drawn comparisons with the Vichy regime and could doom his hopes of re-election in 2012

By Dominique Moisi

“Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.”

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s famous denunciation of the delaying tactics of the British and French on the eve of World War II should be a warning to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In fanning vicious anti-immigrant passions for short-term political gain, he will have dishonor first and then defeat. For, although a majority of French today may be inclined to sympathize with Sarkozy’s ­immigrant-bashing rhetoric, there is no guarantee that they will re-elect him in 2012.

It is not so much Sarkozy’s performance as president that most Frenchmen reject; it is his essence. At a time of rising unemployment, with France dominated by fears about the future, the French need a reassuring father or mother figure, not a jittery and manipulative leader ready to compromise ethics and France’s proud tradition that every citizen is entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Former French prime minister Michel Rocard did not mince words about Sarkozy’s recent proposals to strip foreign-born French nationals of their citizenship if convicted of threatening the life of a police officer, practicing ­polygamy or female “circumcision.”

“One has not seen such measures since the Vichy regime or since the Nazis,” Rocard said.

Equating Sarkozy with Marshal Philippe Petain’s collaborationist Vichy regime is, of course, an exaggeration, but Rocard’s concerns are shared by many French — and not only intellectuals and pundits.

Even among traditional conservatives, there is a whiff of ethical disgust at Sarkozy. Can the French really violate their values to such an extent? Will re-introduction of the death penalty be the next step on this populist downward spiral?

Two years, of course, is a long time in politics and any predictions today about the presidential vote in 2012 would be imprudent. Yet few analysts today would bet on Sarkozy’s re-election. He proved to be a great candidate in 2007, but he was also running against a particularly weak Socialist contender, Segolene Royal. In 2012, it is unlikely that a Socialist Party “starved of power” will commit electoral suicide once again by nominating an unelectable figure.

Could France today be like the France of 1980 on the eve of the Left’s first victory since the establishment of the Fifth Republic? Will Dominique de Villepin, the flamboyant former prime minister under former French president Jacques Chirac, be to Sarkozy what Chirac was to Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981? Chirac, it should be recalled, guaranteed the defeat of d’Estaing by dividing the right so bitterly that it proved impossible to reunite behind Giscard in his final-round confrontation with Francois Mitterrand.

Behind such speculation are important questions about the state of French society and governmental institutions. France, perhaps more than most European countries, is faced with serious internal security problems and violence linked to the failures of previous immigration policies, which have turned the dreams of the 1960s into the nightmares of the present. The undeniable escalation of violence in too many big-city suburbs and the emergence of local “Scarfaces,” who live totally without rules in a fantasy-like world of brutality, reflect a state that has gone astray.

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