Grandstanding by Sarkozy fails to dispel economic worries

Mon, Dec 29, 2008, 00:00

FRANCE:Despite Nicolas Sarkozy's bravura performance on the world stage, there was an authoritarian drift in his domestic policy, writes Lara Marlowe

THE ENGLISH words will and determination don't quite convey the aggressive force of the French term volontarisme, inevitably associated with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Whether it was his 80-day courtship and marriage of Carla Bruni, the relentless pursuit of a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty or the way he tackled the global financial crisis, Sarkozy showed plenty of volontarisme in 2008.

Sarkozy excels at crisis management. His presidency of the EU enabled him to shine on the national, European and world stages, by mediating between Russia and Georgia in August, then by monopolising the initiative when the financial meltdown began in September.

Behaviour that would have grated in other circumstances suddenly became inspiring, as when Sarkozy insisted that George W Bush would have to agree to a crisis summit because, "Europe demands it. And Europe is going to get it." The downside of Sarkozy's volontarisme was a commensurate hunger for power. Sarkozy attempted, but failed, to secure the presidency of the euro group for himself until 2010. In France, he took unilateral decisions regarding the curriculums of primary schools, dictated the schedule of debates in the National Assembly and put public radio and television stations directly under his control.

The financial crisis fostered the spectacular conversion of Sarkozy from Reaganomics - one of his campaign slogans was "less government, less taxes" - to state intervention on a massive scale. After claiming, pre-crisis, that government coffers were empty, Sarkozy found €320 billion to guarantee interbank loans, and up to €40 billion to recapitalise French banks. On December 4th, he announced a €26 billion economic stimulus package that will drive France's budget deficit to 4 per cent of GDP in 2009.

The authoritarian drift in domestic policy created concern for civil liberties. A new law will enable the state to continue to imprison sexual offenders after they have completed prison sentences. Former justice minister Robert Badinter called this "a dark period for our justice system" and noted that "a person will be locked up not for things he has done, but for things he might do. . ." Vociferous protests prevented government moves to allow the imprisonment of children from the age of 12, and a new police file that would have stored information on the medical histories and sex lives of politicians.

Yet fears of a digital "Big Brother" remain; the number of police computer file systems has risen from 34 in 2006 to 44 today.

The number of French people taken into custody doubled from 300,000 in 2001 to 600,000 in 2007, and the police give the impression they are out of control. In November, nine young people were arrested on trumped up charges of "terrorism" in a small rural village. Gendarmes used a sniffer dog and body searches to look for drugs in a classroom of 13 year-olds, and a former newspaper director was taken in handcuffs from his home, stripped and subjected to two rectal searches because a businessman with a fraud conviction accused his newspaper of defamation.

In foreign policy, Sarkozy alternately defied and cajoled Beijing and Moscow. His decision in March to increase France's 1,800-strong contingent in Afghanistan by 1,000 soldiers was billed as the first act of France's return to Nato integrated command, scheduled to take place at 60th anniversary celebrations next spring. Twenty-four French soldiers have been killed in the Afghan war, and opinion polls show that two-thirds of the French believe their country should pull out.

The Afghan commitment symbolises Sarkozy's realignment with Washington and London, at the expense of relations with Germany.

Sarkozy angered chancellor Angela Merkel by courting Germany's former proteges in eastern Europe, by attempting to create a new French sphere of influence through the Union for the Mediterranean, and by teaming up with British prime minister Gordon Brown to challenge German concepts of budgetary responsibility. In December, Sarkozy appointed a German-speaking minister for European affairs in the hope of repairing the damage.

The release of the Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt in July, and the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in October, were cause for celebration.

But France ended the year in a gloomy mood. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb threatened to carry out attacks within French borders. The economic crisis risked aggravating the country's "social fracture".

The Socialist Party was obsessed by internal power struggles, and trade unions were in disarray.

There was no organised opposition to Sarkozy. His government caved in to pressure from student demonstrators and postponed a reform for one year, but the students demanded that the project be cancelled one in two French people said they feared a "social explosion" in the new year. The recession weighs upon the future, with 83 per cent of those polled telling TNS Sofres they expect things to get worse. "We know what's ahead of us," says a close adviser to Sarkozy.

"We see the train bearing down on us, like a slow motion film. We don't know when the collision will happen."