Imagine the problems for David Cameron if his Eurosceptic backbenchers were to throw in their lot with UKIP and then make common cause with left-wing groups opposed to the free market and the EU. And then if this group formed a united front to fight Cameron’s party in elections.
This is pretty much the situation facing Nicholas Sarkozy and his faltering campaign in the French presidential elections, which will unfold over two rounds in April and May. How does he fight a strong challenge from the far-right Front National and its candidate Marine Le Pen (daughter of the veteran fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen) without alienating the votes of the centre and moderate left which he needs if he is to beat the frontrunner, Socialist François Hollande?
Sarko’s dilemma was behind this week’s big row in the presidential campaign (strictly speaking we are still in the phoney war stage, as Sarkozy hasn’t officially declared that he will run for a second term and may not do so for another month). Deputies from Sarkozy’s UMP party and some centre-right groups walked out of the National Assembly on Tuesday after a Socialist MP, Serge Letchiny, accused Sarkozy’s hardline interior minister of Claude Guéant of pushing Nazi ideology.
The row on the floor of the Palais Bourbon followed deliberately incendiary remarks by Guéant at the weekend, in which he said ‘not all civilisations are of equal value’. Addressing a gathering of right-wing students, Guéant added: ‘Those that defend humanity seem to us more advanced than those that deny it. Those that defend liberty, equality and fraternity seem to us superior to those that accept tyranny, lesser rights for women and ethnic or social hatred.’
Letchiny, an MP for the Caribbean island of Martinique (which is a Département of France) said: ‘You bring us back, day after day, to those European ideologies which gave birth to the concentration camps at the end of the long story of colonialism and slavery.’
Despite the row over Letchiny’s over-reaction, it’s Guéant’s remarks which are more telling. Attention has focused on his use of the word ‘civilisations’. If he had said ‘regimes’ or ‘political systems’ his remarks would have been uncontroversial. But by referring to ‘civilisations‘ he was seen to be extending his attack to non-European cultures, and in doing so, sending the weakly-coded message to frontiste voters that ‘we’re on your side’. This was the kind of ‘dog whistle‘ politics last seen in Britain in the 2005 election campaign when Michael Howard’s Tories ran anti-immigration ads above the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Like Guéant’s remarks, this was the political equivalent of a nod and a wink.
We can expect more of this as the first round of voting on 22 April draws nearer. There is a real possibility that Sarkozy could yet come third in the poll and thus be knocked out of the race, leaving Hollande to chalk up an easy win against Le Pen. To make matters worse, Sarkozy also faces a strong challenge from the centrist candidate François Bayrou, a former member of Sarkozy’s own party. The more Sarkozy trims to voters to his right, the more he risks losing votes to Bayrou and even to the moderate Hollande on his left. While there is little chance of Bayrou himself overhauling Sarkozy to claim second place on 22 April, he could yet steal enough moderate votes from the president to let Le Pen through. With threats to the right and to the left, Sarkozy has so far shown more concern for his exposed right flank than for his left.