Sarkozy’s Xenophobia: French President Panders to the Extreme-Right

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Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images

France's incumbent president and UMP ruling party candidate for the 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy poses before taking part in the TV broadcast "Des paroles et des actes" of French TV channel France 2 on March 6, 2012 in

French economic growth is slowing, unemployment is rising, Greece is still a risk to default, and the crisis-rocked euro—while somewhat stabilized of late—is still not out of the existential woods. Yet despite those burning concerns topping the list worried French voters are contemplating as they near general elections, France’s campaigning President Nicolas Sarkozy this week declared  “the biggest concern of French people is halal meat.” Who knew?

And not to be contradicted by polls indicating public opinion regards economic and employment issues as by far the most critical considerations in selecting its next leader, Sarkozy on Tuesday night suggested France’s real problem is “we have too many foreigners”. Sarkozy’s Hungarian immigrant father has been warned.

If all that sounds like the conservative Sarkozy imitating National Front leader Marine Le Pen, that’s because it is—at least in the view of political analysts, pundits, and foreign observers. Many of those commentators interpret the president’s renewed embrace of positions dear to the extreme-right as a cynical yet desperate effort to recruit new backers to his uphill re-election bid. But while that strategy may have been vital to Sarkozy’s 2007 win, there are signs his 2012 re-do is failing to turn the rather grim re-election outlook around.

(READ: Is this European Union ad racist?)

This week’s overture to the extreme-right isn’t the first time Sarkozy has sought to woo National Front (FN) voters by echoing some of their traditional themes. In his 2007 campaign, his hard line stances on crime, immigration, and restoring order to France’s troubled housing projects won over a large enough segment of FN backers to lift him to victory over Socialist rival Ségolène Royal. Since taking the Elysée, Sarkozy has made similar nods to the extreme-right (and with re-election in mind) by creating a National Identity ministry, holding debates on what constitutes Frenchness, rounding up and expelling thousands of Roma, and raising questions about the place and influence of Islam in France that some Muslims equate with low-grade Islamophobia.

Indeed, Sarkozy’s comments Monday revisited what has become the hot topic of Islam on the French right. During a stump visit in Picardy, Sarkozy claimed (incorrectly, polls say) the French public’s biggest worry is unknowingly buying and consuming meat slaughtered according to halal practices (rather than culled in the generic, industrial fashion). In doing so Sarkozy simply piggy-backed an earlier stir Le Pen had sparked with her equally false allegations that all meat sold in super markets is halal—unbeknownst to consumers. It made for much noise among the chattering classes, but was largely an ephemeral distraction to French voters mostly concerned about the economy.

Then Tuesday night, Sarkozy used a nationally televised appearance to again make eyes at the FN, stating both the number and integration of foreigners in France had become a problem. If re-elected, Sarkozy pledged to confront that by slashing the influx of immigrants from 180,000 to 100,000 per year, and limiting some of the social benefits foreigners now enjoy along with French citizens

Does that seem a bit hypocritical from the son of a Hungarian immigrant who not only included African-born people in his cabinet, but at one time also bucked a French taboo by calling for “positive discrimination” to help minorities overcome rampant discrimination? Perhaps, but this is electoral crunch time, and the deeply unpopular Sarkozy may not have the luxury of forsaking his dubious (but winning) 2007 strategy of appealing to the extreme-right. The first round of French presidential voting looms April 22, and he hasn’t much time to reverse Socialist front-runner François Hollande’s enduring lead.

Though Sarkozy experienced an anticipated lift in polls after he officially declared his re-election bid Feb. 15, missteps, overly aggressive language towards Hollande, and his own remarkable unpopularity have prevented him from closing the gap further. Worse still, recent surveys show Hollande’s projected first round score stabilizing at just over 30% of the vote, while Sarkozy’s has slid back to 23%. Polls also project the Socialist clobbering the incumbent in the May 6 run-off by double digits with crooked numbers.

Despite that considerable handicap with less than six weeks to go, however, no one is ruling out the possibility of a peerless campaign animal like Sarkozy turning things around. Indeed, even Hollande’s camp remains wary of the magic he’s worked previously in his career, and his reputation as a fierce political brawler.

Yet the frequency and animation of Team Sarkozy’s beckoning to FN voters suggests it may be feeling some panic—even desperation—despite assurances it doesn’t doubt victory. Indeed, Sarkozy’s nods to the extreme-right have come in the wake of repeated controversies his Interior Minister and closest adviser, Claude Guéant, has provoked with remarks many commentators have decried as Islamophobic (including his efforts to invade Le Pen’s manufactured halal debate). Perhaps more significant still, the normally staid, decidedly temperate Prime Minister François Fillon was forced to placate Muslim and Jewish leaders Wednesday after he publicly dismissed both halal and kosher slaughtering rules as “ancestral traditions” that today don’t “mean anything because in the past they were related to hygiene concerns”. Meat hasn’t been this political since the last PETA barbeque.

But is all amounting to anything? While there’s no question Sarkozy’s wooing of FN voters was central to his 2007 triumph, it’s far from clear his attempts to repeat that have been anything but counter-productive. His earlier bows the extreme-right have usually fueled surges of popularity and support by Le Pen—not Sarkozy—including among mainstream voters who previously considered the FN off-limits. That relative mainstreaming effect on the formerly pariah Le Pen has also increased the risk of her matching her father’s 2000 coup by similarly qualifying for the second run-off spot. That threat—further enhanced by Sarkozy’s dire popularity and approval scores—even led some French conservatives to question whether the president should stand down and let a more electable (and less controversial) replacement represent the mainstream right.

There was never any chance Sarkozy and his presidential cortege were going to let that happen, and virtually all his ruling right has closed ranks behind him since. Yet unease persists. Despite Sarkozy’s recent moves, polls suggest very few FN backers are heeding his call. Those same surveys also indicate a sizeable number of conservatives and centrists who supported Sarkozy in 2007 have now dumped him—in many cases in disgust of his pandering to a camp many in France consider xenophobic, or even racist.

Meaning, if a magisterial campaigner like Sarkozy beats the odds and pulls his re-election out of a hat, he probably won’t like the looks of revulsion he’ll be getting from half of the country for the next five years.

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