I can't remember a French presidential election whose outcome held less suspense than last Sunday's runoff. For months, the country had been getting ready for - or resigned to - Socialist candidate Francois Hollande's victory. That it was a foregone conclusion has more to do with Nicolas Sarkozy's multiple errors than with Hollande's perceived ability to draw massive popular support. This may be why the only surprise in the election result was Hollande's narrow victory - with 51.62 per cent of the vote vs. Sarkozy's 48.38 - despite predictions of a 4- to 8-point gap. The urge to get rid of Sarkozy undoubtedly accounted for a sizeable proportion of the Hollande vote.
Sarkozy's concession speech, in which he took full responsibility for his defeat, was an exercise in dignity and composure - a startling contrast to the vulgarity and glitz that had tainted his presidency. Unfortunately for him, Sarkozy the gentleman came out of hiding too late.
Sarkozy the incumbent candidate dragged the campaign into the gutter. He resorted to every possible trick to manipulate opinion, threatening economic collapse if his opponent were to be elected, and portraying Islam as the main concern among the French, even as the country is facing record-high unemployment, stunted economic growth and the prospect of yet another euro zone crisis.
His desperate bid to pry votes away from the far-right National Front by pitting immigrants against the French-born backfired on him, providing National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen with an unprecedented 17.9 percent of the vote in the first round (some pundits pointed out that, "people prefer the original to the copy." ) Yet Sarkozy pursued this losing strategy in the two weeks before the runoff - apparently blind to the hostility most Le Pen supporters felt for him. As a result, he alienated the centrist vote that might have saved the day for him.
Worst of all, perhaps, he introduced character assassination as a weapon of mass destruction between the two rounds in a country whose political culture is averse to it, alleging at one point that controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, along with the imams of 700 mosques in France, had expressed their support for his opponent.
Hollande nimbly reacted to the blitz by remaining above the fray. He is uncharismatic, and his platform promises a tidal wave of social expenditure that only manna from heaven could fund, at a time when Europe is striving to reduce the debt. But virtually all he had to do was portray himself as a "normal" candidate who, if elected, would be a "normal" president. In multiple ways, Sarkozy handed him a victory.
Where does that leave France? And, French Jews might add, where does that leave us, and where does that leave Israel? It is likely that a majority of the Jewish vote went to Sarkozy. Like most Israelis, most French Jews perceived him as a friendly figure with deep sympathies for Israel. Those who voted for him may now fear both the rise of Marine Le Pen - who intends to play a leading role in the opposition - on the far right, and the access to power of the Greens, who are nominally allied to Hollande and have radical anti-Israel views.
On the night of Hollande's victory, TV broadcasts showed Arab-French youths displaying Palestinian, Algerian and Moroccan flags on Place de la Bastille, where his supporters had gathered to celebrate. To many Jews this must have been an unsettling sight. But disgruntled supporters of Sarkozy in Israel and among Jews here may be well advised to ask themselves what exactly Israel has gained from his presidency, what diplomatic impact his affection for Israel and strong stance on Iran has really had. Hollande too has sympathy for the Jewish state (and many more Jews on his staff than Sarkozy ever had ), and he shares Sarkozy's advocacy of the two-state solution. There's little reason to anticipate the Greens having any say on foreign policy in a Hollande government. And, to be frank, France today is a negligible diplomatic player in the Middle East anyway. Even the European Union hasn't been able to carve a significant role for itself there, in particular as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As for the National Front, I believe that Jewish concern is moot. Yes, Marine Le Pen's father, who headed the party for decades, is a notorious anti-Semite, and the daughter might be, too, at heart, though she's taken great pains to distance herself from her father's histrionics and develop a more palatable persona. But yesteryear's France is gone. The French state has never been able to choose between promoting diversity through participative citizenship, as Anglo-Saxon countries do, or bulldozing minorities into integrating, a policy it has officially advocated but has never pursued consistently. Sarkozy, who easily rode to power in 2007 on promises to impose a French Muslim embrace of the Republic's core belief in the secularist model, failed on this count as well, which laid the ground for the rise of the far right. Consequently, the National Front's No. 1 enemy today is no longer the Jews, but outwardly observant Muslims, militant Islamists and disenfranchised Arab youths. If Marine Le Pen rises to the status of major political player in the coming years, she may find in a growing segment of the Jewish population here her best supporters.
Corinne Mellul is a political commentator in France.
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