By Nabila Ramdani
Nicolas Sarkozy's last major rally before France's presidential elections starting today was not a good one for the incumbent head of state. The diminutive 57-year-old looked tired and drawn as, gesticulating wildly in central Paris, he pleaded with voters to give him a second chance. "Frenchwomen, Frenchmen," he shouted. "Help me!"
This was on the day that the Journal du Dimanche, a newspaper that is normally loyal to Mr Sarkozy, carried an Ifop poll claiming that 64 per cent of the French disapprove of him. Such a figure confirms him as the most unpopular president in recent French history by far. It was accompanied by numerous other surveys that suggest Mr Sarkozy will get through the first round of voting today, but then be wiped out by his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, by more than 10 per cent in the second round on May 6.
Such an outcome would be utterly disastrous for a self-styled radical conservative who promised to free France from the kind of left-wing "big government" which Mr Hollande represents. Rather than relying on a vast public-service sector and high taxes, Mr Sarkozy promised a liberal economy in which every class of people could succeed. "Work more to earn more" was his campaign slogan in 2007, but he has created neither the conditions nor the inclination for people to do so.
A sense of failure certainly marked the rally on the Place de la Concorde, the most historic square in France, and - looking around the subdued crowd - you could see exactly why. Instead of a representative sample of an industrious, aspirational and diverse population, those clutching their cheap Tricolours and wearing the odd red-white-and-blue rosette were for the most part uniform traditionalists - white and prosperous. All decent people, of course, but - on that weekend at least - wholly alienated from the ethnic minorities who now make up a hugely significant proportion of the citizenry.
Mr Sarkozy made it clear what he thinks of about six million French Muslims during his term of office, introducing a swathe of discriminatory legislation including the burqa ban. One year on, it has achieved nothing except to criminalise a number of suburban housewives.
There have also been measures to stop Muslims praying in the street because of a lack of mosques. Nothing, however, has been done to halt the widespread racism and lack of opportunities experienced in Muslim communities. Youths on estates, in particular, suffer unemployment rates approaching 60 per cent, and have to put up with constant stop-and-search policing.
In recent months, Mr Sarkozy's vitriol has also included an absurd onslaught against halal meat, but it was his handling of the recent murders in Toulouse which was particularly repugnant. Rather than sticking to the widespread view that the 23-year-old Mohammed Merah was a "lone wolf" fanatic who had perverted Islamic teachings into a barbaric excuse to murder seven people, Mr Sarkozy used the outrage to reinforce prejudice. Fears about an "enemy within" lurking on predominantly Muslim out-of-town housing estates intensified as Mr Sarkozy ordered raids across France. Five so-called "Islamic fundamentalists" were deported, while dozens more were held under strict antiterrorist legislation.
Many of the raids, conducted by heavily armed special forces, were filmed by TV crews and broadcast on all major channels. Meanwhile, Mr Sarkozy came out with sound-bites aimed at accompanying the footage, including comparing the Merah murders to the September 11 attacks.
It was all part of a legacy which Mr Sarkozy had forged while he was France's interior minister. His uncompromising image was strengthened when he referred to juvenile troublemakers as "scum" who should be "blown away with a power hose". When he came to power, the talk was of distributing wealth in the style of liberal capitalist countries like America and the UK. Instead, law and order dominated his term of office, with "security" and a poisonous national-identity debate used to stigmatise entire sections of the population, from suburban youths to Roma travellers.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, is among those who have benefited from this lurch to the far-right, playing on the fears of working-class voters about immigration and threats to traditional French life. At the beginning of the election campaign, she claimed to be on course to match her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's achievement of reaching the second round in 2002, but that now looks impossible.
The reason is that the vast majority of people are as tired of Ms Le Pen's bigotry as they are of Mr Sarkozy's. Xenophobia certainly still has its place in the consciousness of a citizenry which harks back to a bellicose nation spurred on by the speeches of Napoleon Bonaparte or Charles de Gaulle, but most have other priorities. A recent BPCE poll for the French financial newspaper Les Echos cited an unemployment rate of more than 10 per cent as France's most pressing problem, with immigration ninth on the list of priorities. Economic disasters including the euro crisis have seen the cost of living soar, along with the number of ordinary people living in poverty.
Mr Sarkozy has, in the meantime, introduced tax breaks for a tiny minority of super-rich cronies, while living the life of a tycoon himself, alongside his heiress third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The couple have regularly enjoyed luxury holidays abroad (often at somebody else's expense), or else at Ms Bruni-Sarkozy's palatial private villa on the Riviera.
Mr Sarkozy's first major step on achieving office in 2007 was to award himself a pay-rise of some 140 per cent. The move showed no empathy whatsoever with ordinary French people. The presidential election of 2012 will probably show that they now have no empathy with him, or his divisive politics.
Posted on 27 April 2012.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nabila Ramdani. This article was first published by The National.
Nabila Ramdani is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at LSE.