July 5, 2016
Nicolas’ “bain de foule”
On the 29th of June, French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy walked on stage to a crowd of cheering French expats gathered at London’s Millenium Hotel, mostly from the type of professional and managerial class that watches France’s troubled course worriedly but still hesitates to return to a country they see as dysfunctional and outdated in most fronts. The keynote speech, given in presence of his close aide and former minister for the budget Éric Woerth, was envisioned by the London branch of Les Républicains to address the fears of London’s French expatriate community following last Friday’s referendum. As one of the largest emigrate groups in London – famously known to amount to the 5th city of France –, having inextricable links to the UK and feeling a sense of common political destiny with the brotherly Albion, “Frenchies” in London have been closely following the Brexit campaign and the consequences of the Leave vote with anxiety and upset. With the appeasing humor that sets the former president apart from France’s dull political class, he joked that “worse comes to worse, you’ll be coming back to Paris, which isn’t all that bad”.
Brexit: Le jour d’après
Leaving little room for remorse and untimely rethinking, Sarkozy stressed that Brexit is irrevocable and that there’s nothing to prevent it from occurring now. Calling to speedily carry into execution the clear mandate of the British people to extricate their country from the EU, he echoed the minds of many in the Commission and the Parliament who, bitter about how the EU has been taken hostage by what they see as a purely internal Tory fight, are hurrying Whitehall to invoke Article 50 as soon as possible. Even the Tory mavericks from Leave who now struggle to consolidate into a viable leadership to lead a post-Brexit Britain have spoken against unnecessary delay. Sarkozy talked of the enormous work on the EU’s plate now and stressed that the focus should come back to the euro’s much-needed political union.
In addition, Sarkozy’s words reassured that, contrary to alarmist interpretations by some, Brexit wasn’t a blow to France and Britain’s indelible common past and their shared political destiny. He was quick to affirm that Brexit offered no reason to let the two nations’ intimate cultural and civilizational ties weaken. More significantly, Sarkozy discards Britain’s outright and irreversible break-up from the common course of the continent augured by some. In the face of Europe’s demographic weakness on the world stage – where Asia has garnered the main axis of global politics in the course of becoming the home of 4/7ths of the planet’s population -, it would be self-harming to fragment as a continent, says the presidential hopeful from the country set to become Europe’s most populated state by 2060.
Regarding Britain’s very repudiation of the European project of last Friday, Sarkozy made sure to blame Britain for wanting to keep its advantages without coping with its drawbacks. Regarding immigration – arguably Leave’s main verbatim alongside the EU’s budget – he unequivocally asserted that access to the single market is only compatible with accepting the free movement of people, one of the 4 core founding freedoms essential to the EU that Sarkozy declares himself very attached to. Sarkozy’s narrative of the EU as a community of rights and duties that will implode if states keep wanting to keep the gains while opting out of the pain made Britain look nimby and unkind.
Les Républicains’ president also had words of critique for both David Cameron and France’s own government. He blamed the outgoing British PM for calling a referendum where Remain was doomed to fail, offering no hopeful vision for Britain’s modus vivendi with the rest of the continent other than the same uneasy status quo, in the face of the Leave camp’s promise to go back to the glorious old days. He reminded that at an EU Council meeting in 2013, he warned Cameron of the risk of an EU gamble, claiming to have presaged that the YES camp would take monopoly of the emotions and would win over Britain’s disgruntled and destitute classes who felt left out by the country’s globalist elite. Even longer ago, he dates Britain’s quiet removal from the center stage of the integration debate and its loss of influence in EU power politics at Cameron’s erratic decision to take his Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party, which signified the loss of potential allies in pursuing an alternative vision for the European project.
His shots at Hollande’s handling of the referendum were even less kind. He blamed the French president for taking no active part in the campaign, in line with the finger-pointing at the EU’s top officials for dismissing the potential for Brexit and their naiveness in taking for granted that Remain’s economic case would sway the referendum in Europe’s favor. When mentioning Harlem Désir, Hollande’s Minister for European Affairs and former PS President, the room chuckled a mocking giggle. He also verged on mockery when mentioning Juncker and Merkel. He evidenced that despite keeping their sangfroid, no political action regarding Brexit seemed imminent from Europe’s highest sphere of leaders, stubbornly fixated on refusing to heed resounding demands for change from peoples across the continent.
“Refonder, refonder, refonder”
Rather of the opinion that Brexit, beyond the harsh institutional blow, has presented the EU with an opportunity, Sarko’s speech quickly centered around his radical vision for reform. Largely credited for the age of closest cooperation between France and Germany at the EU-level, Sarkozy set out his forethought of the type of re-founding that France and Germany should embark the EU upon immediately following the election of the next French President in 2017. Europe having reached the end of its rationale, he ascertained that the historic tangle of crises that the Union is suffering from calls for a historic response, needing statesmanship and high-mindedness.
The first area of urgent reform concerns Schengen, a system he argues has crumbled before our very eyes. Europe can’t be the only region in the world that has free movement of people but doesn’t have solid borders and doesn’t defend them, he says. Himself a former Home Secretary and noting that the Interior – formerly relegated to irrelevance in government politics – is a cabinet position that has enormously grown its importance in the troubled and insecure times we live, he proposes the creation of a Euro-Schengen Council with a president picked by all the community’s Interior Ministers. Second, he claims the EU does too many things at the expense of effectiveness and pledges to reduce its priorities to an essential core of 8-10, delegating the rest to nation-states. His third and final pledge is to stop the enlargement altogether, holding up the Balkans’ entry into the union until fully achieving his radical re-founding. He was clear-cut in asserting that Turkey is not vocationally called to join the EU in the short-term.
In the long-term, Sarkozy hopes that a Franco-German initiative to re-found Europe through a third treaty will save the Union’s political project by appeasing people’s fears and anxieties around jobs and the continent’s identity crisis. Additionally, he expects a renovated EU under a re-founding treaty to turn more attractive so as to persuade the UK of a future Brentry.
The road to “l’Élysée”
All in all, Sarkozy seems to have expoused a coherent and comprehensive roadmap for the imminent reform of Europe. Since leaving France’s highest office, he has slid from staunch reformism to outright re-founding-ism. However, his path to returning to the EU’s negotiation tables is far from expedient. His landslide victory at his party’s leadership election in December 2014 shortly before recasting the old UMP into the re-founded, current Les Républicains was the first step of a long process, which will culminate in his return to the Elysée only if he wins his party’s primary and his country’s presidential election. He will find a tough opponent in Alain Juppé, the moderate, outstandingly experienced and presidential former Prime Minister who is better placed to win over the center in a general election. If he succeeds in rallying his country’s disunited moderate opposition to Hollande, he is likely to face Marine Le Pen as the front-runner in the second round.
The president of the party that claims to be better placed than Hollande’s PS to beat Marine Le Pen in a runoff vote – who already sees himself debating the FN leader in May 2017 – rather evaded the issue of a membership referendum across the Channel. The idea has been championed by Le Pen’s party – alongside arguing for France to leave the euro – and although he reflects that Brexit’s shockwave could have come from anywhere else and that France could be next, Sarkozy hasn’t come out yet to reject it. Claudette, a third-age country-dweller settled in London for more than 14 years, spoke at Q&A against the same risky gamble à la Cameron in France. She argued that such a consultation will, just like it has in Britain, mount tension between antagonistic elements of society and sharpen the country’s divisions. Worst of all, she added, it would divert the President’s attention away from the CGT, a proxy for the French right of the unconceding trade unions who have arguably helped to trap the economy into its current sclerotic state.
Despite his popularity, his skill to galvanize the French common man and his statesman allure, reasons for skepticism towards Sarkozy’s vision for Europe abound. He is clear in articulating that there isn’t one Europe and that while some powers of the EU need to be smartly repatriated at the state-level, the eurozone’s political integration needs to continue, if anything with a renewed boost after Brexit. In pursuance of that goal, he hasn’t abandoned his idea of a rotational presidency of the EMU between France and Germany. He says he isn’t worried about spurring the “little countries’” anger in the process. With the recent rise of left-wing populist parties across Southern Europe, there is no bolder way to deliberately risk the euro’s political unity. If he is to deliver on his pledge to re-found our common project towards a more cohesive formula, he might want to start building smart alliances beyond Germany.Author : JorgeGallarza