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]."