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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.