How A Populist Lost His Popularity - Failure Of The Sarkozy Experiment

Essay: With his hyperactivity and "cop-in-chief" attitude, Nicolas Sarkozy was unlike any French president before him. His failure to win a second term is due to his own mistakes and an economic crisis he couldn't contain. Now F

Sarkozy during the 2007 campaign. He couldn't repeat that victory Sunday after five tumultuous years (G. Paumier)
Sarkozy during the 2007 campaign. He couldn't repeat that victory Sunday after five tumultuous years (G. Paumier)

PARIS - On Sunday, May 6, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man with a bruising temperament and boundless energy, suffered the worst setback of his 30-year career – and may be set to leave politics altogether.

The hyperactive president, who ultimately was unpopular like no head of state before him, looked back on his record, which he considered to be satisfactory in the face of repeated crises that France has faced during his five years in office.

He had warned the French that if defeated, he would leave politics. "I'll do something else. What exactly, I do not know," he said. Whether this was a gamble or an early emotional response was unclear.

On Sunday evening, he became the first standing French president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing (in 1981) to fail to be elected a second term. With 52% of the vote, Socialist party candidate François Hollande defeated Sarkozy to become France's next President of the Republic.

Sarkozy's defeat signals the failure of his strategy to move to the right, which began even before the first round of voting two weeks ago, and the historic tally (17.9%) achieved by Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front party.

"We have too many foreigners in our country," he said before the election.

This rhetoric, which some have called "populist," increased further after the April 22 first round. Outraged centrist leader François Bayrou, who endorsed Hollande, called it a "sprint to chase National Front themes."

After sparking a controversial national debate about Islam and national identity during his tenure as president, Sarkozy focused his re-election campaign on France's Christian heritage, the fight against immigration, and security.

Outsized ambitions

Sarkozy moved into the Elysée Palace in May 2007 intent on profoundly changing the nation. He wanted to revive French politics, to reform everything in a country mired in the weight of its old ways. He wanted the French to "work more to earn more," to halve unemployment. He did not succeed.

Ultimately, his unbridled activism and his style of government troubled the French people. His legacy includes reforms of the pension system, increased autonomy for universities, and minimum service during public transportation strikes.

Sarkozy, 57, does not come from the French bourgeoisie, defying the classic profile of a French politician. He was not educated at the famous Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), instead obtaining a law degree and unquenchable political ambition. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he was raised by his mother and his grandfather, a Greek from Thessaloniki. "I am of mixed blood (...), I come from elsewhere," he once declared.

Methodically, he crossed all the obstacles on his way to the presidency: at 19, he became a Gaullist, and at 28 he was elected mayor of the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He was an member of Parliament at 34, and a Minister for the first time at 38. In 2007, he moved on triumphantly to the presidency after defeating Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.

Sarkozy is a politician who "doubts nothing, especially not himself," said Jacques Chirac, who was his first mentor. His close ties with the former president were ruptured forever after Sarkozy supported another right-wing candidate, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 election.

His defeat today signals the end of an era. "Since 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy has been the star of French politics," said Frederic Dabi of the polling organization IFOP. But he has been particularly essential to the right. After serving as Interior Minister in the early 2000s, he moved on to a brief stint as Minister of the Economy before launching his presidential bid.

He was the "First Cop of France," guided by openly Atlanticist diplomacy and rather free-market economic ideas. But his mandate will remain linked to the crisis, which forced him to recompose and to adapt.

He is confident that he made the right decisions to protect the French – first to save the banks in 2008, and then following Greek bankruptcy in 2011, when he made concessions to his ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who openly supported him for re-election. European emergency summits have put them together as a "couple," despite their very different characteristics.

Nicolas Sarkozy also believes that he made the right choice by sending the French Army to the Ivory Coast and to Libya in support of the Arab Spring, which he first underestimated.

Controversy, then and now

In short, he was a "crisis president" never as comfortable as when he was in action, say his supporters. But with his uninhibited speech on immigration, Nicolas Sarkozy's mandate ended just as it began: in controversy.

Five years ago, it was his relationship to the rich and powerful that caused a stir when he celebrated his victory at Fouquet's, an upscale restaurant on the Champs-Elysées. His family was "exploding," he explained. His second wife, Cecilia, was leaving him.

Mr. Sarkozy was the first French president to be divorced while in office. He was also the first to marry – to former model Carla Bruni in 2008 – and to have a daughter – Giulia, his fourth child after three boys.

Despite the mea culpa, he still struggled shake the image of "President of the Rich," which was accentuated by his first fiscal decisions in office.

Thanks in part to his fighter mentality, he still hoped to win in the final days, even as the polls were all predicting defeat. Small, wiry, and marked by tics and mannerisms, the man who does not drink and who works out every day sent out a final message to his supporters. "Help me," he told them.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Guilliame Paumier

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!