Sarkozy the Savvy

Little more than a month ago, French voters went to the polls in near-record numbers to elect their next president. The choice between candidates was stark, the stakes for the country were high, and the tension leading up to election day was palpable. For weeks, the entire nation had been following every twist and turn of the campaign, endlessly analyzing the complex electoral calculus that makes French politics something like a soap opera, a reality TV show, and a bloodsport all rolled into one. So the results, when they were announced, seemed to bring a sense of relief to both winners and losers alike. Nicolas Sarkozy had been elected with a clear if not overwhelming majority. Ségolène Royal had spared the Socialist Party (PS) a humiliating defeat. More than anything, the ordeal was over.

Contrast that to the first round of voting for the French legislative elections, which took place last weekend. After a month-long campaign whose outcome was about as suspenseful as an episode of Baywatch, Sarkozy's UMP party now stands poised to win a landslide victory in run-off voting on Sunday, with some estimates forecasting his parliamentary majority at 75 percent. A record 39 percent of voters didn't even bother to cast ballots. The viability of two parties, the PS and François Bayrou's newly-formed Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem), was placed in jeopardy. Most striking, perhaps, is that no one seems to care.

To be fair, as the record abstention level makes clear, voters were suffering from a severe case of election fatigue. The level of intensity seen during the presidential campaign would have been difficult and perhaps even unhealthy to maintain indefinitely. So while scattered riots broke out immediately following Sarkozy's presidential victory, in the ensuing weeks the mood among his detractors shifted from a "man the barricades" militancy to a "wait and see" wariness.

His massive majority is also a little misleading. The French Parliament is elected in a winner-takes-all system, with no proportional representation. So while the UMP might end up with as much as 75 percent of the 577 seats up for grabs, they won only 43 percent of the actual first-round vote (compared to 28 percent for the PS, and 36 percent for the combined left).

Finally, the French legislative elections function by logic and design to give the newly elected president the ability to carry out his program. That means that, despite the Socialists' repeated warnings about the danger of entrusting the right with all the levers of power and the need for a counterbalance, the UMP's victory was never seriously in doubt. That said, while Sarkozy's majority was something of a foregone conclusion, the impressive size of it is the result of skillful political maneuvering, as well as the changed landscape of French politics in the aftermath of the presidential election.

A lot was made in the American press about Bernard Kouchner's appointment as Foreign Minister as an example of Sarkozy's political savvy. But Kouchner has always been a contrarian Socialist, critical of the party line on foreign policy and resentful of perceived slights from the Socialist hierarchy. As far as bipartisan cover goes, he was something of a consolation prize. Sarkozy's real coup de grace was to appoint Hervé Morin as Minister of Defense. Far from a household name in France, Morin served for the past five years as François Bayrou's right-hand man in Parliament. In defecting to the Sarkozy camp, he brought along with him the quasi-totality of Bayrou's UDF parliamentary delegation.

The move deprived Bayrou of the UDF's recognizable incumbents as well as its historical electoral base just as he was attempting to jumpstart his new party. Forced to field political neophytes, MoDem won a mere 7 percent of the first-round vote (compared to Bayrou's 18 percent showing in first-round presidential voting). And while his own seat is now almost guaranteed (the UMP unilaterally withdrew their candidate from his second-round run-off as a goodwill gesture), it's far from certain that Bayrou will have any company in Parliament under the MoDem banner.

If Sarkozy was able to concentrate on destabilizing Bayrou's nascent centrist movement, it was because the PS generously took it upon itself to undermine its own electoral chances. From the moment that Dominique Strauss-Kahn (a reform-minded centrist and a PS heavyweight) attacked Royal on national television minutes after the presidential election results were announced last month, it was clear that, for all the Socialist platitudes about the need to maintain unity for the upcoming legislative elections, the struggle for control of the party had begun.

There was good reason for this. If this year's presidential election proved one thing, it was the value of a unified party lined up solidly behind a candidate. Sarkozy spent a year conquering Chirac's loyalists in the UMP before the campaign even began. By the time he faced off against Royal, he had already disposed of all of his internal party rivals. Royal, on the other hand, never enjoyed more than tepid support from the PS "elephants," who resented the distance she placed between her campaign and the party leadership, and at times seemed more eager to position themselves for her eventual defeat than to contribute to her victory. It was a dynamic they seemed intent on repeating in the month since her defeat. Faced with a discouraged base and a determined adversary, the leadership resembled a tennis player who, having lost service, plays out the set to conserve his energy for the following one.

The question remains: What kind of party will the eventual winner of the PS power struggle inherit? After Lionel Jospin's catastrophic first-round defeat in the 2002 presidential election, François Hollande, as party Secretary, guided the Socialists back to credibility by convincing the various warring factions to present a united, if sometimes incoherent, front. The strategy paid initial dividends in the 2004 regional elections, when the PS handed Chirac's UMP a stinging defeat by winning twenty out of twenty-two regional presidencies. Among the triumphant regional candidates was Royal, whose victory served as a springboard for her subsequent presidential run.

But Hollande's strategy was the political equivalent of deferred maintenance, squeezing a bit of extra mileage out of a straining party machine by relegating any mention of much-needed ideological clarification to the background. The rejection of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe in 2005 brought the party's internal divisions front stage and center, where they remained during this year's presidential election. The legislative elections this past weekend proved to be a bridge too far for Hollande's fix.

Royal has already set her sights on Hollande's job, with an eye towards securing the party apparatus for an eventual repeat candidacy in 2012. But her maverick streak has alienated her from the party bureaucracy, putting her at a disadvantage in the factional in-fighting that will determine Hollande's successor when he steps down next year. Her main rival among centrist reformers, Strauss-Kahn, maintains a strong base within the party and is known as a political brawler. But he was weakened by a second-place showing this weekend against a political newcomer in his legislative district. Meanwhile "the Socialist wing of the Socialist Party" (to borrow a stateside concept) has long been unhappy with the party's supposedly "inevitable" drift towards the center. There's no guarantee that the glue joining them to the centrists will hold in the event of an explicit ideological realignment.

Regardless of who wins the tug-of-war between Royal and Strauss-Kahn, though, Bayrou has made it clear that he's determined to forge ahead in the center, using regional and municipal elections to keep MoDem (and his political hopes) alive until the presidential election in 2012. And he's ruled out any possibility of a formal alliance with the PS in order to maintain his independence -- even if it is an independence that, for the time being, closely resembles solitude.

Between them, Royal, Bayrou, and Strauss-Kahn represent a political force capable at least in theory of assembling both a presidential and a governmental majority. Sarkozy recognized that. If he took such pains to smother MoDem before it took flight, it was because he believed that Bayrou, who little more than a month ago controlled a party representing almost 20 percent of the electorate, was the best-positioned of the three to pose a meaningful threat. Now, with all three weakened and none willing to put their personal ambitions aside, the center looks doomed to remain crowded, divided, and harmless for the foreseeable future.

In surveying the political landscape, Nicolas Sarkozy must like what he sees. Of the three major political parties, one is in disarray, consisting of a solid apparatus with no one at its helm. Another exists largely as a legal fiction for the personal ambitions of its chief. Only his own is unified, disciplined, and in control of a solid mandate to govern.

But if that presents the perfect conditions for passing his legislative package of reforms, it also represents a danger in the event that he overreaches. With no institutional leverage at all, the opposition has nowhere to turn but the street, something Sarkozy has said he won't tolerate. Not surprisingly, the possibility of such an explosive confrontation has long served as fodder for the worst-case scenarios offered in arguing against a Sarkozy presidency. Now that all the pieces have fallen into place, we'll soon see how realistic those fears were.