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Pierre Rosanvallon on this thing called Sarkozy-ism

The arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy to the office of president has unquestionably ushered in a new era of French politics. But just what is Sarkozy-ism, his policies and regime? How is it changing French society and where is the opposition? Pierre Rosanvallon (pictured), a leading French political historian and thinker, offers his analysis in an interview with Mediapart.

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The arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy to the office of president has unquestionably ushered in a new era of French politics. But just what is Sarkozy-ism, as some call his presidential policies and regime? How is it changing French society and where is the opposition?
Pierre Rosanvallon, a leading political historian and thinker of the French Left, offers his own analysis in this interview with Mediapart.
Rosanvallon holds the chair of Modern and Contemporary Political History at the Collège de France, and is a professor and chair at the French School of Higher Social Sciences Studies. His works have been translated into 22 languages and he runs a think-tank called The Republic of Ideas (click here for his biography in English).


Mediapart: There's something surreal about the current climate in France, with the massive social movement against the pensions reform, the huge political scandal of the Bettencourt affair, the law and order speech Sarkozy gave in Grenoble in August, and the hysteria around whipped up against France's Roma community. What's your view of this particular sequence of events?

Pierre Rosanvallon: "These recent events need to be examined from two angles, through a dual lens, as it were. There's a wide-angle view of these most recent affairs - the demonstrations and debates around the pensions [reforms] - which reveals how this is a central, recurring theme in the social landscape. First of all, this debate is the expression of long-term, ongoing intellectual, social and political opposition."

"From this point of view there is nothing new, other than elements of autism that are particularly marked in the government's attitude to social concerns. What does stand out as remarkable is that for once there's strong unanimity among unions. And yet it can also be noted, once again, that there's a certain emptiness in France's social democracy, which has lost sight of its instruments, its bearings, its landmarks and its institutions."

"Social democracy has been emptied, to the advantage of a direct confrontation between unions and power, with political power utterly failing to play the consultative role it's supposed to in normal social negotiations."

"We're dealing with a modification of the terms of social democracy, which means that the very notion of social partners no longer has any meaning today. There's an aspiration towards politics, but a political policy that's not responding to the demands that are voiced."

Mediapart: And then there's a second angle...

P.R.: "This second, narrower angle, raises questions about Sarkozy-ism, what its nature is and how it's evolving. It appears quite clear today that this leadership has become completely cut off from reality. It's because it feels reality escaping its grasp that it needs to rebuild a sort of imaginary reality, upon which it can have a verbal hold. Thus we're seeing the construction of an imaginary world in which there's a sort of reconfiguration of the rules of the game."

"To the historian, this is a classic. In the 19th century, when there were social tensions, uncertainty, difficulty in giving meaning to political action, attempts to recreate meaning and unity through the use of protectionist measures and xenophobia were a constant. At the end of the 19th century, there were national reactions, protectionist and xenophobic, massively orchestrated by a clutch of political parties. It's on this occasion that the sadly modern definition of nationalism first appeared. The tone was set in the text by [writer and politician] Maurice Barrès for the elections of 1893. It was entitled Contre les Etrangers [Against Foreigners]."

Click on video below to listen to an extract of the interview (French only).

'Socialists only draw strength from his weakness'

Pierre Rosanvallon (cntd): "So Sarkozy-ism needs to be analysed. And what transpires is that Sarkozy-ism is no longer a doctrine or a policy. Rather it's an ongoing opportunistic attempt to adapt to realities. There's no longer ‘one' Sarkozy-ism. There was one in 2007, geared towards federating the different strands of the Right in order to win the presidential election. But today one needs to speak of several forms of Sarkozy-ism, which have never ceased to evolve: there's a national-Colbertist1 Sarkozy-ism, a security-obsessed Sarkozy-ism, and a liberal Sarkozy-ism."

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© Reuters

"All of these have collided with the wall of reality and failed. Now we're faced with the most caricatural and revolting form of Sarkozy-ism, that of the negative national union, as it were. This is the attempt to build consensus with the most archaic expressions of xenophobia and the rejection of 'the other'. It's bound to have major consequences. And it's working, because, while there's a profound protest in society, there's also an absence of any alternative, which creates an impression of putrefaction. Indignation is prevalent in the country, but indignation doesn't amount to a political programme."

"A party or an individual can never be analysed without examining the system it forms with others. The problem in France isn't simply Sarkozy-ism, it's the French political system, and thus the link between Sarkozy and his opposition."

Mediapart: Do you think that Sarkozy-ism only draws its strength from the weakness of others, of those who'd like to oppose him?

P.R.: "He's only strong because of a lack of clarity, a lack of alternative, while the socialists only draw their strength from the weaknesses of Sarkozy-ism. When everyone draws their strength from the weakness of others, the result is a political game that's heart-breaking for public opinion. It's a machine that creates both disenchantment and a hatred of politics."


1: Colbertism, named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert, French finance minister under King Louis XIV, is broadly espouses state interventionist and protectionist policies.

'Democracy has been on the retreat for years'

Mediapart: You say, "Sarkozy-ism no longer exists". However, three comparisons are made by observers: policy driving lines in common with Berlusconi-ism; modernisation of the traditional [conservative] Right; and finally, concerning certain themes, the most symbolic being that of the decline of nationality, a comparison with the Vichy government1. Is Sarkozy-ism now merely a system for managing political power, or is there more to it?

P.R.: "We can define what are referred to as doctrinal mainstays in Sarkozy-ism. But these doctrinal mainstays don't form a coherent whole. There's a doctrinal mainstay that could be classified as authoritarian democracy: it consists of making elections sacred and considering that institutions can only be democratic if they're the product of votes or anointing by elected representatives. This is why the direct nomination of public television and radio directors has been decided upon, and restrictions concerning independent authorities have been developed. There are links here to what one calls in Russia 'sovereign democracy'. This has grave consequences for French society. It can be said that democracy has been in retreat for several years."

"There's another doctrinal mainstay, classic and liberal, centred on the fiscal question. We also find ourselves in a neo-Colbertist, mercantile mainstay on a number of industrial policies. And there is another doctrinal mainstay: the security-obsessed, even xenophobic Right, which has been manifesting itself very clearly.

"Bonapartist, liberal, Colbertist, xenophobic... all this doesn't form a coherent whole. It forms a very unlikely musical score. This is why Sarkozy comes across less as a person representing a project than as an unlikely common thread linking these different doctrines. Do these correspond to the different political families he is trying to unite?"


1: The Vichy government was the French collaborationist regime, led by Marshall Pétain, during German occupation of the country from 1940 to 1944.

'We are seeing a return of class politics'

Mediapart: This hotch-potch you describe, is it not basically characteristic of Bonapartism, or French Caesarism, managing to play on different registers? Does this not bring us to the heart of Sarkozy-ism, something that is a necrosis within democracy, where he pushes to the limit all the shortcomings of our institutions?

P.R.: "There are numerous points of comparison with the Second Empire1. The Second Empire represented a highly theorised authoritarian democracy, economic liberalism, industrialism and finally, to short-circuit political parties, Napoleon III gave power to trades unions. But it's very clear that the Second Empire didn't have this xenophobic dimension. And so, alas, I'm afraid to say, today we're a lot worse off than under the Second Empire."

"Still, this Sarkozy-ism does have a particular trait: in its most difficult moments, it's the most scandalous dimensions that gain in strength. There's less and less talk of Colbertism and more and more of foreigners. Every society, when it no longer knows how to define positively the conditions of social order, compromise and negotiation, finds itself overcome by the negative. This has been a constant throughout history."

Mediapart: Is this not favoured by an institutional framework? Can it not be said that Sarkozy-ism is the purest product of the 5th Republic2 ?

P.R.: "Once again, the use of the term Sarkozy-ism presupposes a doctrine, a social philosophy, ideas, long-term strategies. But Nicolas Sarkozy is increasingly coming across as a sort of news-driven Cartesian diver. This means that personal details, temperamental traits, currently carry the day to the detriment of ideas, projects and alliances."

Mediapart: Added to the practices of the institutions of the 5th Republic, is there not something new, which existed neither under Mitterrand, nor under Chirac: the emergence of a new oligarchy? Is the novelty not to be found in the unprecedented link between the presidency and the highest ranks of the business world, revealed in its own way by the Bettencourt affair?

P.R.: "This is an undeniable characteristic of Sarkozy-ism, but it verges on other things. If he were simply an oligarch, he would have to be more discreet on issues of immigration and security. All that creates disorder. And yet, if it is already questionable to appear to be the president of a political camp, or even the president of a class - and it's true that, for the first time, we are seeing a return to class politics -this return to class politics is not being helped.

Mediapart: Unless the xenophobia is functioning as a sort of social diversion, to mask the reality of such class politics...

P.R.: "This xenophobic dimension has provoked reactions in the Christian world, the cultural world, among a whole social world - reactions that are so strong that they are undermining the rest of his political activity. As a result, today's leadership is a weak leadership, for a strong leadership is one that can flaunt a certain legitimacy, a moral strength. And we can see that those from the Right who are attacking him, do so on those very grounds. This is the position of [former prime-minister, Dominique de] Villepin3 who's fighting him from a moral standpoint."


1: The Second French Empire under Napoleon III lasted from 1852 to 1870.

2: The current Fifth Republic was introduced in October 1958.

3: Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a long-serving ally of Gaullist Jacques Chirac, has been in bitter and lengthy political rivalry with Nicolas Sarkozy with whom he shares allegiance to the ruling UMP party. He has now positioned himself as a likely conservative-Right candidate for the 2012 presidential elections.

'We need social guarantees, more powerful conterweights'

Mediapart: What has the Left failed to learn from its electoral failures, since 2007, 2002, and even 1995? Why has it not managed to build an opposition?

P.R.: "There are mental and intellectual reasons. The Left no longer wears the ideological blinkers that imprisoned it for so long (the Jacobin, state socialist vision, classic at the end of the 19th century, with public spending and nationalisation). For better or worse, the Left has become less ideological. The better aspect is that at it has rid itself of its former doctrinal rigidity. The worse aspect is that it still hasn't managed to replace this with a new, intelligent understanding of the world. It doesn't even offer an efficient description or social critique of today's world."

"A political party has an obligation to express the feelings of society and to define a horizon. But the Left only does this with very big, generous words: it's all very well criticising inequalities, but politics are about using language that's sensitively in tune with what people are living, a language that allows citizens to take a hold of their situation. In the double talk of yesteryear, even in that of the Communist Party in the 1960s, there was something that rang true with people. Today the first problem for the Left is its language, a language that's so general that it slips over the surface of people's lives."

"Historically, the Left has been on the side of equality and emancipation, but today it has no new discourse about emancipation or equality. As a result, the welfare state still holds a central place in Left-wing thinking, but it's become a banal spending philosophy. Social spending is necessary for projects, institutions, directions. Today, projects are coming apart at the seams, which explains why Right-wing criticism of the welfare state has prospered."

Mediapart: Is the problem with the Left today not also the fact that it has completely ceased to distinguish itself from the Right, with its political personnel largely easy to confuse in terms of social backgrounds with those of the Right? How can an alternative be formulated when it isn't inspired by difference?

P.R.: "This is a question that deserves pause for thought, because on the one hand, in a sense, I also see that politicians are more in touch with real life than intellectuals or journalists. They see a lot of people every day, they go campaigning in food markets, are on the receiving end of complaints; the social world is constantly knocking at their door. It can't be said that they're isolated in ivory towers, that they are a caste cut off from society. But their confrontation with the social world operates with a certain number of limitations regarding what they hear and their vision. A link is not created. They face a sum of fragmented situations, but no longer have a global understanding of the social world. Ideology had its shortcomings, but it had the advantage of offering a view of the world in which all these different experiences, these different lives encountered, were placed in a certain order."

"Moreover, being politically active today perhaps involves no longer expecting everything to come from the political class. In France we were lucky enough to have a political class which, unlike in the United States, for example, attracted better trained people, high-ranking civil servants, etc. There was the attraction of intellectual and administrative elites. This is considerably less the case today. Should one dream of a return to heroic politics, to an exceptional political class? This isn't the case in any country."

"The problem now is more about conceiving democratic life with mediocre politicians. Of course I would be delighted if there were a better political class. But citizens today can no longer afford to speculate upon, or to hope, for a return of an exceptional political class. Disenchantment would only be fuelled by such a wager. In a way, Sarkozy is an illustration of this. Even on the Right, the view is that politics and politicians are diminishing."

"This means that we have to learn to function with institutions that are stronger than the little people at their head. There have to be social guarantees, more powerful counterweights. Virtue, greatness, and selflessness should be what guide politics, but we need to ensure that citizens' demands don't stop there. Otherwise they'll end up compensating for these expectations by throwing themselves into the arms of the most devastating forms of leadership, which is populism. The populist leader is the one who shows up after disenchantment."


English version: Chloé Baker