No. 375: Divisive Sarkozy Back on the Presidential Train / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
5 September 2016
France has recently been convulsed by unconstitutional attempts by local mayors to enforce a ban on burkinis (a cross between the burqa and the bikini) worn on beaches by Muslim women. In this Islamophobic atmosphere, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy just announced he would seek the nomination of the centre-right for president in November for elections scheduled for 2017. This marks the return of one of the most controversial and divisive figures in French politics.
Sarkozy has promised to lower taxes, increase the retirement age and working hours, and threatened to repeal gay marriage. He has again donned the garments of the xenophobic, ultranationalist Marine Le Pen's National Front, and the US's Donald Trump. His ideas have centred on adopting a tougher stance on Islam, following 18 months of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice that have killed 231 people. Proposals have included tightening citizenship and immigration rules, declaring war on "multiculturalism", radically cutting immigration, imposing a 10-year wait for non-nationals to apply for citizenship, suspending the right of close family to join legal immigrants and denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born in France.
Sarkozy has further advocated a ban on head scarves in state universities (one already exists in state schools) and prohibiting pork-free options in school canteens. His call for the preventive detention of "dangerous" suspects is an atavistic measure straight out of the dictators' playbook. This is all occurring within a state of emergency and a failed attempt at draconian legislation revoking the French citizenship of convicted terrorists.
Sarkozy has often been criticised for a politique de grandeur of symbolic grand gestures. He is a ruthless jingoist and egomaniac. He was derided as "president bling-bling", an arriviste and social climber who accepts free holidays from the rich and famous. His notoriously uncouth behaviour included challenging a fisherman to a brawl after being booed. As president, he was described as "Zorro" for a swashbuckling, hyperactive style. Sarkozy still faces several judicial cases involving the misuse of campaign funds, corruption and influence peddling. There are allegations that his 2007 presidential campaign was funded by Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, against whom he later led a military campaign to remove him from power in 2011, having earlier laid on a lavish state visit for the dictator in Paris.
Sarkozy's election to the presidency in 2007 saw the rise to power of a former right-wing interior minister who had increased police harassment of immigrants. In 2005, he had infamously dismissed alienated and marginalised rioting Maghrebi and black African youth in Paris's impoverished banlieues (suburbs), as racaille (scum) who needed to be cleaned up with a hosepipe. This was after two immigrant youths were electrocuted after being chased by police.
Sarkozy had also supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was a close ally of then US president George W Bush.
Acerbic and deeply prejudiced, Sarkozy did not waste time in revealing his true colours on the global stage. During a speech in Dakar in July 2007, he noted: "One cannot blame everything on colonisation — the corruption, the dictators, the genocide, that is not colonisation." He went on to note that France might have made "mistakes", but believed in its "civilising mission ... and did not exploit anybody". The French pseudo-philosophical president then incredibly noted: "Africans have never really entered history. They have never really launched themselves into the future. In a world where nature controls everything, man has remained immobile in the middle of an unshakable order where everything is determined. There is no room either for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress."
This speech was widely condemned across Africa and in some French intellectual circles.
Sarkozy also backed autocrats such as Madagascar's Didier Ratsiraka and Togo's Gnassingbé Eyadéma, and provided military support to prop up the autocratic regimes of Chad's Idriss Déby and Central African Republic's François Bozizé in 2006, saving Déby's regime again in 2008.
Sarkozy's toughest challenger in November's centre-right primaries will be the more moderate Alain Juppé, a cerebral former prime minister, who himself served a year's suspension from politics following corruption charges. Sarkozy's triumph could signal a return to populist nativism and foreign interventionism.
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, and incoming director of the University of Johannesburg's Pan-African Institute for Thought and Conversation