Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a conservative president of France from 1974 to 1981, was not reelected. He ascribed his defeat — by less than 1 % of the vote against François Mitterrand, the socialist challenger — to the Jewish community, which resented his pro-Arab policies. From then on and as long as he entertained the hope to run again, he made sure to appear as a friend of Israel.
Nicolas Sarkozy, another conservative, played openly the Jewish and pro-Israel card in 2007 and was elected. He may have forfeited this on September 21 by delivering a pro-Palestinian speech at the UN General Assembly in Manhattan. No doubt he thinks that he has taken in fact a balanced approach and reiterated his concern for Israel’s security. The problem is that French Jews and most non-Jewish friends of Israel are likely to think the contrary. And when it comes to politics, it is the voters’ opinions or perceptions that count. Not the president’s inner conviction.
Sarkozy should have been more cautious. His current standing is precarious, to say the least. He was very popular for the first five months of his administration, from June to October 2007, with a job approval rating of over 60%. Then, the magic evaporated. By January 2008, job approval was down to 50%. Three months later, by March 2008, it was under 40%. Throughout 2010 and the first four months of 2011, it sank even lower, to less than 30% and — frightfully — a mere 23 % in April 2011. Some improvement was noticed last summer, and job approval is currently close to 35%.
Decline in popularity leads to decline in electoral returns. In fact, Sarkozy’s conservative party, UMP, has lost every single ballot since 2007, either local, regional, or European. The Senate, France’s upper house, may turn left as well, since it is elected by the largely Socialist-dominated local and regional assemblies. In fact, 170 seats out of 348 are up for grabs in this Sunday’s election.
Prospects for the coming presidential election, next spring, are equally bleak. French elections are two-ballot affairs. All current polls credit Sarkozy with about 25% of the vote on the first ballot, scheduled for April 2012, against about 30% for François Hollande, the most popular among the Socialist contenders. Marine Le Pen, who replaced her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as the leader of the far-right National Front one year ago and is seen as a much more engaging figure, would come in third, with some 20% of the vote.
For a while, there was some speculation that support for the National Front was in fact underestimated, and that Miss Le Pen might come in second. Under French law, only two contenders — those two who come in first and second on the first ballot — may run on the second ballot. The question was thus whether Le Pen would outdo Sarkozy and be the Socialist candidate’s adversary instead of him on the second ballot. It is assumed now that Sarkozy will be ahead of Le Pen whatever the circumstances.
On the second ballot, according to the same polls, Sarkozy would lose by a large margin against Hollande or by a narrower margin against Martine Aubry, another Socialist contender. Indeed, 56% of the French say they would like the Left to win in 2012.
Why did Sarkozy, who ran a superb campaign in 2007, undergo such a downfall ? There is the voodoo explanation : bad luck or a spell. Strangely enough, things started to deteriorate when he separated from his second wife Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz and ran out of control when he met and married his third wife, Carla Bruni.
There are many rational explanations as well. One is betrayal. In 2007, Sarkozy ran almost on what amounted to a Victor David Hanson platform, French style. It was a complete departure from the Chirac policies: free market, anti-taxation, defense of the West, law and order, national identity. Some promises were implemented, many were forgotten, and many of those that were implemented were later rescinded. More crucially, the Sarkozy administration constantly switched from bombastic conservative toughness to kowtowing to liberal political correctness. Finally, when the president realized how disappointed his 2007 voters were, he just dropped his platform altogether and reverted to Chiraquism.
Another rational explanation for Sarkozy’s misfortunes is his lack of gravitas as a president and his propensity to cling to new money, showbiz celebrities, and intellectual fashionistas. In a similar way, he made a lot of bad appointments at the cabinet level, intended for the media rather than for any substantial reason. Many of these appointees behaved, quite naturally, as controversial and rebellious media stars rather than as supportive allies. Finally, it should be added that Sarkozy has always elicited hatred from many corners just for being partly of foreign descent and for having some Jewish roots (all in all, one baptized Jewish grandfather). The hatred factor did not prevent him from winning in 2007 but hurt him more once his administration proved to be ineffective.
Admittedly, a lot of things can happen from fall to spring, and September’s frontrunners may lose their edge in April. Things will be awkward until the very last moment, and every vote will be important.
Will Sarkozy’s pro-Palestinian stand at the UN bring him more votes from the Muslim and third-world immigrant communities, which amount so far to about 10% of the global vote ? Hardly. Eighty-two percent of the French Muslims voted against him in 2007 and it is likely that such proportions will be the rule again in 2012. Whatever he says or does now in Libya or regarding Palestine, they remember he raised the issue of national identity against them, something the Left never did.
Will it bring him more support from the classically pro-Arab Gaullist or Chiraquian conservatives ? No, because they already have switched from dismay to support: they are the ones who determined last summer’s surge.
On the other hand, it will have a disastrous impact on the Jewish and pro-Israel vote. A president who takes a stand at the UN that Israel begged him not to take cannot be deemed to be a pro-Israel president, period. The real question is: how many pro-Israel voters are there?
There is no religion-based or ethnically based census in France (by law). Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that 1%, or a bit less than 1%, of all French citizens identify as Jews. That’s the margin that decided Giscard d’Estaing’s fate in 1981. In addition, polls on religious life and behavior in France show that up to 4% of the whole population identify entirely or in some measure with Judaism and express concern about antisemitism and Israel’s security. Additional polls show that up to 20% of the French tend to support Israel rather than the other side, and that a further 30% have no opinion and are thus not necessarily hostile to Israel.
I am not saying that the absolutely or relatively pro-Israel voters in France are going to vote against Sarkozy just because of his speech at the UN. But as long as they are unhappy with Sarkozy for other reasons, or seduced by his challengers for some other reasons, dissatisfaction about the betrayal of Israel will help them to withdraw their support. The incumbent president won in 2007 by a 6-point margin against his Socialist challenger: 53% versus 47%. One percent of the vote, and all the more so three or for percent, may determine his fate.