Three books are reviewed for this Review Essay:
Nick Hewlett, The Sarkozy Phenomenon. Societas Academic Publishing, 2011. 9781845402396.
Michel Maffesoli, Sarkologies : Pourquoi tant de haine(s)?. Albin Michel, 2011. 9782226220929.
Olivier Mongin and Georges Vigarello, Sarkozy. Corps et âme d'un président. Éditions Perrin, 2008. 9782262028121.
On the evening of 06 May 2012, France entered the “Post-Sarkozy Era,” As with any president in Western democracies, many authors have commented his ideas, governance, personality and image during the five years of his office (2007-2012). Among dozens of publications written on Sarkozy, three titles stand out – one written in English, and two in French – which form the backbone of this review article.
Book 1: The Sarkozy Phenomenon
In The Sarkozy Phenomenon, Hewlett comments from an outside perspective on the success of Sarkozy’s Presidential campaign in 2007, and its aftermath. In his theoretical framework, Hewlett refers mainly to Marx, but also Gramsci, in their analysis of Bonapartism (that is, Napoléon III), understood by Hewlett as ‘a moment in mid-nineteenth-century France when many ordinary people had entered the political arena but where any real class compromise had not been achieved’ (p. 21). This idea is transposed by Hewlett into 21st century France, in order to validate his hypothesis of ‘a modern form of Bonapartism’ applied to Sarkozy (p. 14).
Accordingly, Sarkozy’s success can be explained by many elements combined together: ‘a carefully constructed brand of authoritarian populism which struck a chord in the particular political, economic and social circumstances of the time’ (p. 57). However, Hewlett’s comments are sometimes unfair and biased; even when Sarkozy adopted attitudes of openness (“ouverture”) and fair-play. For instance, regarding the appointment and nominations for about a dozen of high profile socialist figures (like Bernard Kouchner and Éric Besson) to high level positions in the French government or diplomacy – thus ignoring the ideological barriers between Left and Right – Hewlett interprets these unusual decisions by Sarkozy as opportunistic and as tangible examples of a new form of Bonapartism (p. 74). This reflex confirms the old motto that said ‘No matter what your opponents do, criticize them!’ Further on, Hewlett compares the policies of the French Right and especially Sarkozy’s programme to the infamous Occupation era, with direct references to Maréchal Philippe Pétain (p. 81).
Elsewhere, Hewlett discusses Sarkozy’s low popularity in the 2010 polls and writes with a spontaneous touch of hope (‘at last’) that his opponents, the Socialist Party, might win the 2012 presidential election: ‘it seemed at last that the PS and the rest of the left had some chance of winning’ (p. 99). But why did Hewlett write ‘at last’ when alluding to a possible socialist victory in 2012; why did the author take his arguments to the personal level when he is certainly a commentator meant to be detached from political practise? This question goes unanswered and remains a smudge on an otherwise interesting read.
Indeed, despite its detailed enumerations of Sarkozy’s shortcomings and what can be seen as errors, this book on the reads more like a long reproach against the Right rather than an analysis of policies and governance. Because of its constant negative tone where even the positive steps are criticised and labeled as strategies, we often feel that the author cannot really explain why the majority of French voters chose Sarkozy for president in 2007. Perhaps France’s population is often divided on many fundamental issues and one option, the Sarkozy option, was viable at the time. Hewlett misses this avenue of exploration.
Book 2: The Postmodern Sarkozy
French sociologist, Michel Maffesoli, is among the most eminent advocates of postmodernity in France, which he sees like a ‘réenchantement du monde’ [a ‘re-enchantment of the world’] (pp. 38 and 67). In his latest book entitled Sarkologies: Pourquoi tant de haine(s)? [approximately Sarkologics: Why So Much Hate?], Maffesoli investigates Sarkozy’s public image as interpreted in the French media. Often, the media seemed to only retain the superficial dimensions of Sarkozy’s everyday life: his spontaneous and sometimes provocative words, his private life and luxurious way of living. According to Maffesoli, Sarkozy’s early successes were based on his capacity to ‘give the people what they want’ at every level (p. 20). As a demonstration, Maffesoli refers to many authors and ideas about power, including Ernst Kantorowicz’s concept of the Two Bodies of the King, and focuses on the symbolic dimensions of Sarkozy’s system and presidency (p. 23). But Maffesoli does not elaborate a coherent theoretical framework; he only quotes a variety of authors throughout his demonstration; sometimes in a “name-dropping” fashion.
Moreover, Maffesoli criticises Sarkozy’s tendency to protect the élites and his own circle of allies (pp. 50 and 62). Here, Maffesoli observes that Sarkozy is perceived and appropriated as if he were a mere character from a novel, that is, a virtual character without any real existence (see pp. 9 and 66). But the critiques made by Maffesoli regarding Sarkozy’s attitudes towards the friends he protected could also have been made François Mitterand, who was hedonist and epicurian (p. 24). One could add that Mitterand carefully hid the fact he had cancer (despite his promise of transparency) and protected many friends with Nazi pasts (like Paul Bousquet, known as a collaborateur
Book 3: A Strategy Labelled as “Sarkozysme”
Among the first books about Sarkozy following his 2007 election (and perhaps the first book to use the expression the “Sarkozy phenomenon”), French journalists Olivier Mongin and Georges Vigarello, published a short book entitled Sarkozy: Corps et âme d'un président [approximately: Sarkozy, Body and Soul of a President]. It is in fact taken from two articles published earlier in the Parisian journal Esprit. Written less than one year after Sarkozy’s rise to power and published in January 2008, the authors present their book as neither a biography nor an exam, rather an undressing (“mise à nu”) of the social changes in France through its President (p. 13). According to the authors, Sarkozy’s strategy is to depict performance through his own “success-story” (p. 14). This success, labelled as “sarkozysme”, can be explained by the mix of a new bourgeoisie and popular imagination (p. 51). Furthermore, because Sarkozy often appeared in public, and allowed the French media to have ‘something to report,’ the authors insist on the importance of television and public image in their critique of Sarkozy’ strategies to legitimate his own decisions, actions, performances in public, and even his ‘mises-en-scène’ whenever in public (p. 51). Even if they admit that Sarkozy grew up in France near Paris, the authors also mention Sarkozy’s roots from Hungary and his Jewish background (from his Grandmother) (p. 36). In their conclusion, the authors try to restrain themselves in criticising Sarkozy, arguing that ‘it is too soon to say he is not good enough’ (p. 99). Here, Sarkozy is understood as three symbolic characters: the “entrepreneur, coach, and MC” (“animateur”) (p. 99). But Mongin and Vigarello conclude that no matter which of the three characters the man is mimicking, he is nonetheless ‘doing too much’ in terms of decisions, actions, and media exposure (p. 99).
These three books each retain an apparent bias against Sarkozy; as a politician and a person. Frequently, readers do not get a picture that spans both sides of an issue; the main point of scholarly works. However, Hewlett’s Sarkozy Phenomenon is undoubtedly stronger and more rigorous than Maffesoli’s approximations and more spontaneous essay. The theoretical framework in Hewlett is described meticulously in the first half and then applied to the French Republic through its President. As for the third essay, Mongin and Vigarello wrote a partial, yet sometimes intuitive piece that cannot fairly be compared to the other two titles because it was conceived much earlier.
Nevertheless, I believe the first rigorous, fair and balanced book about Sarkozy’s legacy still has to be written, to do justice to a dedicated politician. These three critiques only confirm the intelligentsia’s all-too-common negative attitudes towards Sarkozy, their fidelity to a Leftist ideology, and their failure to produce a fair and balanced portrait of the Sarkozy phenomenon. Attachment to the Left or Right is not objectively “good” or “bad” per se, but academics must leave their opinions aside if they want to study political systems, public opinion, and politicians fairly. Personal opinions cannot be regarded as facts, or at least authors should declare their own political and ideological positions openly instead of hiding behind the language of academia while pursuing their own political agendas.