Sarkozy stokes nationalism on campaign trail

Sarkozy Villepinte.jpg

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the champion of European integration during his country's EU presidency in 2008, has appeared to turn a cold shoulder to Europe in campaign stump speeches laced with nationalism as he heads towards a first-round election in April.

Addressing some 30,000 people at a rally outside Paris, Sarkozy yesterday (11 March) vowed to pull his country out of the EU's border-free Schengen area unless the treaty rules are changed so that decisions are made by nations and not "technocrats and courts".

In a stab at Greece, he said a country that has difficulties controlling its borders should be excluded from Schengen.

"The Schengen agreements can no longer respond to the gravity of the situation. They must be changed. We need to implement for Schengen a structural reform as deep as the one we just have agreed for the euro," he said at a vast conference centre in Villepinte.

"We should be able to punish, suspend or exclude from Schengen a failed state just as we can sanction a eurozone country which does not fulfil its obligations."

Sarkozy went so far as to suggest that France should leave Schengen, if changes he wants are not implemented within a year.

"If I were to find that within 12 months there was no serious progress in this direction, then France would be able to suspend its participation in the Schengen agreements until negotiations reach their goal," he said.

The incumbent faces a tough race and is trailing the Socialist challenger François Hollande in the 22 April first-round contest that is likely to propel the two men to a run-off on 6 May.

American-style rally

At Villepinte, Sarkozy' s campaign team staged a rally largely reminiscent of US elections. Sarkozy referred to the United States of the Great Depression to plead for Europe to adopt a "Buy European Act" similar to the Buy American Act of 1933 – signed into law on President Herbert Hoover’s last day in office. It required the American government to give preference to US products in its purchases.

If this is not applied at the EU level, Sarkozy vowed that he would introduce the measure unilaterally, if he is re-elected.

"So I solemnly ask the question, why the United States, the most liberal country in the world, authorises itself something Europe is banning for itself. France will ask that Europe adopts a ‘Buy European Act’ modelled on the Buy American Act so that companies that produce in Europe would benefit from European public money,” he said.

“If within 12 months ahead no serious progress on the requirement of reciprocity with our main partners was recorded, then France unilaterally apply this rule until the negotiations succeed."

Hollande, who leads in the polls, accused Sarkozy of being unable to present new ideas to the French and turning Europe into a "scapegoat".

"I found that he spoke more about himself … than about his project," Hollande said.

Polls show Sarkozy reducing the gap between himself and Hollande in recent days.

The latest poll by Harris Interactiv gives Sarkozy 25% against 27% for Hollande. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, comes third at 18%, followed by centrist François Bayrou at 13%.

Sarkozy has been trying to chip away at Le Pen’s nationalistic base, drawing her to blast Sarkozy for having helped put in place a "dictatorship of Europe" which she said he is now pretending to fight.

"France is strong, but weakened by Europe, it is weakened by the dictatorship of Europe, and this dictatorship Nicolas Sarkozy has helped to set it up, he helped it to be carved in stone," she said.

French news media commented that after Sarkozy’s speech at Villepinte, Hollande may suddenly appear to EU leaders as a "moderate reformist" compared to Sarkozy.

In recent days, Hollande was attacked for his announced intention to re-negotiate the fiscal compact treaty on economic governance. According to news reports, leaders in London, Berlin and Madrid refused to meet with Hollande because of his positions on EU affairs [more]. 

The French are going to the polls to elect a president with a first round on 22 April and a run-off on 6 May. After winning his party's primaries in October 2011, Socialist candidate François Hollande has done consistently well in opinion polls, almost always leading incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

This is not the first time that Hollande has faced Sarkozy in an electoral contest. In 1999, both headed their respective party lists with the Socialists winning the largest share of the vote with 22%.

Hollande served as an MEP for six months. He returned to national politics, becoming mayor of Tule in 2001 and an MP in 2002, while continuing to serve as first secretary of the Socialist party.

Socialist politicians and activists were deeply divided by the ill-fated EU Constitutional Treaty, which the French rejected by referendum on 29 May 2005. Hollande, who backed the treaty, emerged significantly weakened, helping to sideline him as a potential presidential candidate in 2007.

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