France Finally Bids Goodbye to de Gaulle
Vitaly Dymarsky for RIA Novosti
On Sunday, France will hold its first round of presidential elections. Who will
replace Jacques Chirac?
This is the question that polling agencies are now trying to answer. Every day the
French media publish the results of numerous polls. All respondents agree that there
are three obvious leaders in the presidential race: Segolene Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy
and Francois Bayrou. They are followed in the polls by the ageing veteran of French
politics, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who heads the far-right National Front. The remaining
eight of the 12 candidates are not so much contenders for the Elysee Palace as
political Olympians for whom taking part in the marathon is more important than
The competition between the four heavyweights could result in some surprises,
although the polls predict that Sarkozy will win the first round with Royal as the
runner-up. They would then qualify for the May 6 run-off. There is, however, still a
lot of potential for an unexpected turn of events. One riddle has already been
solved - in mid-March, Chirac said that he was not standing this time despite his
constitutional right to run for a third term.
In his emotional farewell address, Chirac did not have much to say to his potential
successors. But he gave them one piece of advice: "Never compromise with extremism,
racism, anti-Semitism or the rejection of others. In our history, extremism has
already almost ruined us. It's a poison. It divides. It perverts. It destroys."
These words were primarily addressed to Nicolas Sarkozy, who has always been a tough
rival of Chirac, although they come from the same political family. He is the
fiercest fighter against illegal immigration (although he himself comes from a
family of Hungarian immigrants). Sarkozy wants all "others" to dissolve into French
society. He has even suggested setting up a new ministry for immigration and
national identity. Chirac's words that "France is enriched by diversity" are also
meant for him.
In general, the ethnic issue has long been a headache in France, which has to pay
for its imperial past by accepting a heavy flow of immigration from former colonies,
a flow that sometimes gets out of hand. Now, with the expansion of the European
Union, France has to deal with people from Eastern Europe coming to seek their
fortune. It is no accident that a referendum on the EU Constitution in May 2005
failed because of a poster of a Polish plumber that was put up all over France by
opponents of European integration.
Resentment towards the "others" provides fertile ground for the growing popularity
of Le Pen and his far-right National Front, whose positions border on fascism. In
the 2002 election, he made it into the run-off, shocking the French public. Nicolas
Sarkozy learnt his lesson better than others: having become interior minister, he
launched an assault on immigration. The results have been dubious. Sarkozy has
enticed voters with nationalistic views, but he has also made the bad situation in
immigrant suburbs even worse - the "others" are growing more and more discontent
with their status.
In effect, Chirac warned his potential successor against showing too much zeal in
fighting immigration. It could bring him short-term electoral gains, but it will not
help deal with the problem of immigrants or their relations with French society. In
talking about "extremism," Chirac might have meant not so much those who took part
in the street riots, smashing shop windows and turning cars upside down, as
nationalistic-minded politicians who tacitly or overtly demand "France for the
The meaning of Chirac's political legacy is crystal clear - be loyal to the French
model even in the new world. Since de Gaulle's times, France has been considered a
country where even far-right politicians profess leftist views. Owing to this father
figure, France was among the great powers that won World War II. He also managed to
put an end to the exhausting and pointless Algerian conflict. General Charles de
Gaulle is the author of the model that has been adopted by Chirac. A foe of
socialism, to say nothing of communism, the general found his own recipe for
war-ravaged France: a combination of state-run capitalism founded on big,
government-owned companies with an extravagant system of social support. Since all
his opponents were on the left of the political scene, de Gaulle paradoxically
occupied the right flank, despite his statism. I think this explains (along with
their shared anti-American attitudes) the special relations that have linked Paris
and Moscow for several decades - both in Soviet times and now.
At one time, Chirac made an attempt to adjust the general's French model and assumed
a neo-Gaullist stance. But his efforts did not make the state-run sector more
efficient, while expensive social support continued to be a drag on the French
economy. He did not have the political will to renounce the system because even tiny
reforms pushed people into the streets, costing votes.
Chirac's contradictions with Nicolas Sarkozy are not limited to their policies
towards ethnic minorities. The outgoing president has criticized his potential
successor for excessive liberalism and Atlanticism. Be that as it may, Jacques
Chirac is seen as the last Gaullist, and for this reason his appeal to remain loyal
to the French model will remain unheeded - the model is obviously lagging behind the
demands of the modern economy.
Now the voters will have their say - if they want to improve their lives quickly and
ignore France's "special place," they will cast their ballots for Sarkozy. If they
prefer a smoother transition, a neither-peace-nor-war situation, they may go for
Francois Bayrou. His ratings have grown tremendously in the last few days. In public
opinion polls he has almost matched Segolene Royal from the Socialist Party, who has
not come up with anything new so far.
The departure of the last Gaullist will assuage anti-American sentiments in Europe,
including Russia. Moscow has lost the support of Germany (after Schroeder) and Italy
(after Berlusconi) and will also lose it if Sarkozy comes to power in France; he is
much more critical of the Kremlin's policies than Chirac ever was. In the European
theater of anti-American action, Moscow will have to fight almost single-handedly,
hoping for assistance from its Asian and Latin American comrades-in-arms. Europe is
not likely to help us there.
Vitaly Dymarsky is a member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily
represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-