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In Extremis

"The surprise," said an official of Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party last night, "was that there was no surprise!" Yes, to the extent that, as predicted, Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal made it into the second round of the French presidential election, scoring roughly what the polls had predicted. This time, French voters seem to have told the truth to pollsters, despite widespread speculation that they would not (including by me--mea culpa).

But there was one big surprise in the first round voting on Sunday, albeit one that no member of Sarkozy's party could publicly acknowledge. It is that Sarkozy's strategy of running to the right, and taking voters from perennial anti-immigrant candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, worked. Strikingly, Le Pen's vote sank from nearly 17 percent in 2002 to barely 10 percent this year--a loss of one million votes. Most of those probably went to Sarkozy, and they represent his first-round margin over Royal. On Monday, establishment commentators like Le Monde Editor Jean-Marie Colombani were quick to hail "the victory of democracy over the extremes"--but Sarkozy has arguably coopted the extremes, not defeated them, through his tough talk about cleaning out the troubled suburbs with a power hose, his proposal to create a new Ministry of National Identity and Immigration, and his invocation of France's "Christian roots."

This same strategy may well carry "Sarko" over the top in the second round of the elections, to be held on Sunday, May 6. He will likely attract most of the rest of the Le Pen voters, plus the handful that supported reactionary Philippe de Villiers, and a majority of those who went for centrist François Bayrou. As new polls are already indicating, all this should be enough to lift him comfortably over 50 percent.

But Sarkozy's success with the Le Pen electorate is also a potential weakness, because it will only deepen the hatred and fear felt toward him from the left, and it will confirm his position as the most vilified major figure in French politics. During the first round campaign, a majority of voters consistently told pollsters that they disliked Sarkozy, and anti-Sarkozy websites proliferated (there is even a site called which allows you to set the candidate twirling to the disco dance of your choice). Not surprisingly, Royal's campaign officials were telling reporters last night that "We have a chance if we turn the second round into an anti-Sarko referendum."

Can this strategy work? Perhaps. Sarkozy touches a deep vein of antipathy in France that cannot be explained simply by his aggressive statements on crime and minorities. His own ethnic background (Hungarian and Greek-Jewish) probably contributes. France has had several prime ministers of Jewish and immigrant backgrounds, but never a head of state. But, more importantly, in a country that has traditionally treated ambition with ambivalence--and preferred its presidents to act like anointed kings--Sarkozy simply seems too nakedly, graspingly ambitious. In the nineteenth century, French doctors went so far as to call ambition a disease that caused premature aging, while Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, called it "a violent and unthinking delirium." Of course, Napoleon himself shows that nakedly ambitious men with foreign-sounding names can still do quite well in French politics on occasion.

Still, there is a risk that making Sarkozy the principal issue could backfire badly for the Socialists: It will only highlight the irony that, of the final two candidates, it is Sarkozy--leader of the incumbent party--who has the real program for change. Although he has already begun a predictable swerve back to the center, stressing his support for France's social "protections," his election would still entail a loosening of economic regulations, a tougher stand on the "integration" of minorities, and a more pro-American foreign policy. By contrast, Ségolène Royale, despite running to become the first Socialist president in twelve years, stands for, well, the status quo. Her platform consists almost entirely of bromides like "having a national conference on salary levels" and "giving universities the means to achieve excellence," with very few specific proposals. "Ségo" has said repeatedly that she sees Britain's Tony Blair as a model. But there is a big difference between the two, and it is called Margaret Thatcher. Britain could only have a Blair because it previously had a Thatcher. France has not yet had anything like a Thatcher, which helps explain both its sclerotic economy and its enviably high level of public services (especially public health and public transportation) compared with Britain. Nicolas Sarkozy is probably no Thatcher either, despite what his detractors say, but if anyone fits the role in this campaign, it is him, not Royal.

By David A. Bell