Sarkozy's defeat is a rejection of the Republique de Bling

Sarkozy's vulgar desire to party put a curse on his presidency.

By this time next week, it looks likely Nicolas Sarkozy will be out of a job and – if he is to be believed – French politics for good. But his defeat is a rejection of personality, not policies. If Sarkozy loses to François Hollande, it will be the end of the brash Republique de Bling, not the end of the Republique de Grandeur.

For many French people, between 2007 and 2012 Sarkozy betrayed Charles de Gaulle’s Republic, replacing its grandeur with a far brasher alternative. The rot set in that fateful evening in May 2007 at Fouquet’s restaurant when he celebrated winning the Presidential election. Sarkozy and his rich friends dined ostentatiously; all the high fives revealing an overabundance of Rolexes, as the bottles of champagne emptied. He later spent a short holiday on the Paloma, the yacht of his friend Vincent Bolloré, one of the richest businessmen in France. Sarkozy had said in early 2007 that, if he won the presidency, he would spend some time meditating or gathering his thoughts, perhaps in a monastery. The vulgar desire to party instead put a curse on his presidency that he could not shake off throughout his five-year term.

What on earth had Sarkozy done? He seemed, overnight, to have turned the presidency into a Hello! magazine feature article: I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here meets the elected monarchy of one of the most cultivated, protocol-conscious and historically sensitive countries on the planet. He noisily divorced his wife and even more noisily remarried a glamorous model. As well as tripling his own salary, he gave big tax breaks to the rich. One member of the public in a crowd received a less than Presidential put-down: "casse-toi, pauv’ con," he said, which translates as something akin to "fuck off, you poor twat!". And so the list went on. The President’s behaviour soon saw the French begin to shudder with embarrassment and disapproval.

In contrast to de Gaulle, le grand Charles (1.92 cms), it was felt Le petit Nicolas (1.65 cms) had lowered the tone of the presidency. The implications extended beyond politics however. The grandeur of the presidency and its maintenance has an essential political function in France – it binds the Republic together. Undermining the Presidency meant Sarkozy had undermined the Republic itself.

This campaign has revealed that both the President’s campaign and that of his main rival are very aware Sarkozy’s personality will be the deciding factor in this election. Sarkozy has already shown regret for his ostentatious victory celebration at the last election and Hollande is quick to point out flaws in his character.

The Fifth Republic is about ’character’, but in a far more complex way than in, say, the United States, where ‘character’ is akin to ‘mettle’, courage, and thoughtfulness. Sarkozy has been criticised for his policies, his handling of the economy (although his handling of the worst recession for at least a generation has, in fact, been rather good), and his hyperactivity. But the truly damning aspect of his presidency has been the perception of him by the French as: unstable, vulgar, vain, inconsistent, shallow, unreliable, neurotic, and as possibly dangerous for democracy. It is this which will be Sarkozy’s downfall if the polls are to believed, not his policies but his personality and the flash, vulgar Republic he half-knowingly embodied.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.