There He Goes Again: Threatening To Suspend Schengen Accords, Sarkozy Drifts To the Extreme Right

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It would be tempting to give French President Nicolas Sarkozy points for being consistent, except his incessant efforts to approximate the positions of surging extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen have proven so catastrophic it’s difficult not to wonder if the Elysée isn’t suffering from a deep and dysfunctional learning disability. After months of page-stealing from Le Pen’s playbook have only served to fuel the National Front leader’s rise in polls—preventing Sarkozy from qualifying for the run-off round in simulated polling of next year’s presidential election as she’s done so—Sarkozy is now again waxing anti-immigrant by threatening to suspend parts of the free-travel Schengen accords.

It may never come to that: France and Italy could wind up finding another way to smooth out their dispute during their April 26 summit, and avoid the unprecedented suspension of Schengen. Or, they could butt heads in the row—sparked Rome’s decision to grant temporary resident permits to most of the estimated 25,000 Tunisians who fled their country’s unrest by sailing to the Italian island of Lampedusa. With most of the Tunisians wanting to move from Italy on to other European Union nations—primarily Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, France—Paris is rejecting the Italian residency permits as valid travel documents, a position Germany shares with France, and which the EU has ruled as a valid objection .

Despite European concerns over potential mass immigration provoked by the unrest of the Arab Spring, Sarkozy’s threat to formally suspend aspects of Schengen is really just more electoral theatrics. With it, he’s seeking to reproduce his 2007 campaign coup of embracing themes dear the extreme-right with the goal of luring National Front voters to his re-election cause. Except this time around, it isn’t working—quite the opposite. Each time Sarkozy and his cabinet have unveiled new controversial proposals in the past 18 months that in one way or another have stigmatized immigrants, French minorities, or Muslims, the result has been the same: the president’s own approval rating—now scarcely above 20%–has dropped, while support Marine Le Pen has shot up. As a result, polls now regularly show her beating Sarkozy in the first round of presidential polling 13 months from now, and move on to represent the French (far) right in the run-off against probable Socialist candidates.

This point can’t be made strongly enough: despite unwavering evidence that his veering to the far-right is a serious strategic and electoral mistake, Sarkozy and his main cabinet allies have continued to sound the charge in Le Pen’s direction all the louder.

“It’s actually quite scary, because it suggests Sarkozy and his advisors are living in some psychotic state in which they can’t see the reality the rest of us do, and don’t see the strategy they keep using continually runs them into the same wall,” an advisor to leading centrist politician and former Sarkozy minister told us. “Sarkozy seems convinced that in seeking to divide the country with these positions, he’ll somehow ultimately create a unity of voters behind him. Except all it’s doing is creating a growing crowd of support around Marine Le Pen. At this point you really have to hope Sarkozy actually does have a serious learning problem, because the only other alternative is he actually believes in the extreme-right positions he’s increasingly adopting—and will stick with them into 2012 as he watches Marine Le Pen advance to the presidential final.”