Sarkozy speech not just a bid for presidency

 

WORLD VIEW:THERE WAS nothing accidental about the venue for Nicolas Sarkozy’s set- piece speech on Europe on Thursday night.

In September 2008, 10 days after the fall of Lehman Brothers, the French president took to the stage at the Zénith – a 5,000-seat arena in the Mediterranean port city of Toulon – and gave what the Élysée Palace presents as a defining speech of his presidency.

The crisis had exposed the “madness” of the markets, he said that night.

A new Bretton Woods was needed to reshape the global financial and monetary system, to “restructure” capitalism. Sarkozy promised that France would let none of its banks fail and that no depositor would lose a single cent. He laid out an agenda that carried him through – albeit with mixed results – to the G20 summit in Cannes last month.

That speech was an important turning point in Sarkozy’s own thinking.

He was never the ultra- liberal his opponents depicted, but one of the central messages of his presidential campaign in 2007 was that France had to adapt itself to the global system through deregulation and a smaller state.

In Toulon, it was that system itself that was put on trial, and it was the state that would protect the fearful French from it.

This week’s Toulon speech marked the culmination of a different, but more important, shift for Sarkozy and his party. In stagecraft and choreography, it was a classic political rally that fired the starting gun on the campaign for next spring’s presidential election.

The crux of Sarkozy’s speech though was an attempt to reconcile his own voters to the idea of ceding more sovereignty to the European Union. In order to win concessions from Germany on more “solidarity” between euro zone states – code for ECB action and/or eurobonds – France has had to give ground on the principle of intrusive budget surveillance.

The nature of that surveillance is still being negotiated, but conceding the principle is a major departure for the flame-carriers of the Gaullist tradition and a mark of how far the main centre- right bloc has moved on Europe in the past 20 years.

The exercise of national sovereignty and the right to act autonomously are foundation stones of Gaullist thinking.

As recently as 1992, a

majority within the RPR party – forerunner to Sarkozy’s UMP – voted against the Maastricht Treaty because they felt it required states to cede too much power.

Contrast that with today’s situation, where Sarkozy has managed to secure party unanimity on every major European initiative he has proposed and where 55 per cent of UMP voters, according to an Ifop opinion poll in October, are in favour of “a single economic and budgetary policy”.

Sarkozy has acknowledged that, as president, he too has grown ideologically more convinced of the importance of the EU.

The task he set himself on Thursday evening was to convince the French people to accept a loss of sovereignty because it was in France’s strategic interest.

He did it, ironically, with one of the most Gaullist-sounding speeches of his presidency.

Sarkozy didn’t explicitly admit that France is in a position of weakness – its heavy debt, chronic budget deficit, sluggish economy and rising borrowing costs have cost it leverage in negotiations with Germany – but he did present shared sovereignty as a way of “mastering our destiny”, freeing France from the control of the markets and ratings agencies.

He reassured voters that “more Europe” meant “more sovereignty, not less, because it increases our capacity to act”.

On a screen behind Sarkozy’s lectern was a huge French tricolour, flanked by a pair of tiny EU flags.

Domestic politics informed every line of Sarkozy’s speech. For the first time since he became president, Europe has in the past fortnight become a serious political dividing line between the UMP and the Socialists, who are still haunted by the split in their ranks caused by the European constitution referendum in 2005.

Presidential candidate François Hollande has accused Sarkozy of caving in to Angela Merkel and giving away control of national budgets, while fellow socialist Arnaud Montebourg recently made an extraordinary attack on “German egotism” and Merkel’s desire for “domination”. He spoke of “German nationalism which is reappearing in Dr Merkel’s Bismarck-style policies”.

Sarkozy however was less concerned with those on his left than those on his right.

Toulon is a major French naval port and has a strong military tradition. It is also in the heartland of the far-right National Front, whose campaign against the euro – it favours French withdrawal from the single currency zone – has given it a lift in the polls.

Sarkozy didn’t mention the party by name, but his comforting noises about the protective state, the cost of living, immigration, France’s nuclear power and its seat on the UN Security Council were all aimed squarely at those soft National Front voters he managed to win over in 2007 but who are now threatening to abandon him next spring.

Sarkozy had a continent’s attention when he took to the stage on Thursday evening, but his own thoughts were closer to home.