Despite its name, the European Parliament is not a legislative body. The only real power it has is the power to reject the EU budget and to veto the appointment of members to the Commission, the EU’s executive. Hence, most voters in Europe see the European elections as an opportunity to voice an opinion on how their domestic national governments are doing. From 4 to 7 June, the citizens of the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) will be invited to the voting booth to elect a new European Parliament.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the French presidential elections in 2007 with a law and order program, is currently campaigning for his UMP party on the very same issues, although the EU has no competence in this respect. The UMP has an absolute majority in the French parliament, the AssemblÃ©e nationale. If it does not do well next month this will undermine the president’s domestic position.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a lucky man. He has lost all credibility, but the voters have no political alternative to his right or to his left. The president is currently campaigning for the European elections on a domestic theme, the rise of crime in France, which he promised to combat in earlier campaigns. In normal circumstances, Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party would lose considerably to the right, but polls indicate that what they might lose there they will pick up on the left.
In a recent speech in Nice, Sarkozy said he would “fight without mercy against scoundrels and criminals.” Talking tough has always been the trademark of France’s leading politician. Delivering the promises, however, is proving difficult. The French feel less safe today than in the pre-Sarkozy era. Before he became president, “Sarko” was France’s minister of the Interior since 2002 and, as such, responsible for law and order. Official figures show that since 2003 physical assaults on individuals have risen by 14% in France.
In Nice, Sarkozy claimed that criminality in France “declined by 15%” in the past seven years, which means there were “two million victims less.” There has, indeed, been a decline of burglaries by 22.2% and car theft by 43.2%. According to SÃ©bastien RochÃ© of the CNRS, the French Institute for Scientific Research, this trend is visible everywhere and is caused not by the efficiency of the authorities and the police in combating crime but by scientific progress: the anti-burglary protection of homes and cars has vastly improved. As soon as the French leave their homes and cars, however, they are less safe than they were in 2002.
Brice Hortefeux, the current French Interior Minister, attmpts to relate the rise in physical assaults to a rise of so-called “intra-family violence.” However, President Sarkozy realizes that the voters do not buy this. On his visit to Nice, he told Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor of Nice and a leading UMP member of the AssemblÃ©e nationale, to write a bill against the street gangs that terrorize many French urban areas.
President Sarkozy also said that schools should be “sanctuaries” where children can feel safe. Last March, a school in Garges-lÃ¨s-Gonesse, a northern suburb of Paris, was attacked by a gang armed with claw hammers, iron bars and baseball bats. They molested the headmaster because earlier he had stopped gang members from beating up a 15 year old pupil. A few days earlier, a school in Gagny, another Paris suburb, was attacked by youths with iron bars who lashed out indiscriminately, thereby injuring 24 pupils and teachers, apparently for no other reason than that a member of a rival gang is a pupil at the school.
Many French parents are worried about the situation in the schools. Even without the gangs coming in, there is already plenty of violence in schools. Also in small town France, teachers have been stabbed and assaulted. Gangs terrorizing schools, however, is a new phenomenon.
Public gang warfare in France erupted in earnest during the Sarkozy era. Since late 2007, gangs from all over Paris regularly meet up for fights in underground, bus and train stations. One and a half years later this sort of violence has become routine. Most of the gang members are young men of North African origin, but some of the most aggressive fighters are girls. The French police say violence by teenage girls has increased by 140% since 2002. Last April, two gangs made up exclusively of girls between 14 and 17 years old fought a battle at the Chelles bus station, east of Paris. “They had knives, screwdrivers, sticks and teargas and they were really going for each other,” a policewoman said. “There must have been about 100 of them. If we hadn’t intervened quickly, it would have ended in a bloodbath.”
The rise in gang crime, the ethnic composition of the gangs, the lack of safety in schools and public transport, the fact that many French avoid using public transport in urban areas after dark, are all issues which the media and politicians try to circumvent. Occasionally, however, people find a means to vent their outrage about the present situation in France through the internet. Early last month, a six-minute video from a surveillance camera showing an attack on a young man in a Parisian bus during the night of December 6, 2008, aroused a tsunami of furious comments and reactions throughout the French-language Internet. Some websites had to close their comment section due to excessive traffic of citizens who wanted to have their say about the incident.
The video showed how the young white man was beaten up by a group of black thieves because he resisted them when they tried to rob him. The bus driver was too scared to come to the victim’s aid, while some passengers who tried to help the young man were also molested and others looked on in horror.
The video was put online by a police officer, who was subsequently arrested and suspended from the regional police force after a complaint from the bus company RATP for “theft of images” and “harming [RATP’s] image.” Pierre Mongin, the president of RATP, said that “broadcasting the video on the internet is a criminal act.” Following RATP’s complaint, both Daily Motion and YouTube took the video down. It was reposted, however, at a Russian website. The victim of the attack, a 19-year old student of political science at a liberal college, declared in the French papers that he would gladly testify for the prosecution in the case against the police officer who released the video.
In a newspaper interview, the young man stated that he did not know whether his attackers had hurled racial insults at him. “If they were made, they were the consequence of my attackers being drugged or drunk,” he said, adding: “Moreover, they were not all immigrants. In no event do I want to be regarded as the symbol of a certain social image who was attacked by foreigners.” This, too, led to a barrage of comments from the general public, who seemed less willing to downplay the incident than the victim himself.
Fortunately for President Sarkozy, France lacks a serious party to the UMP’s right. France’s conservative movement is in as deep an existential crisis as America’s. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National will certainly gain votes from the anxiety of the electorate about their and their children’s safety. However, Le Pen’s anti-Semitism and his repeated line about the holocaust as “a historical detail of World War II,” are putting off sensible voters. Moreover, the FN has fragmented into half a dozen smaller parties as a consequence of the nepotism of the 80-year old Le Pen who wants his daughter Marine, an attractive, tall, fair-haired 40-year old, to succeed him at the helm of his party.
Apart from Sarkozy and Le Pen, the only player who matters on the right wing of the French political scene is Viscount Philippe Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon (Phillippe de Villiers in short), a 60 year old Catholic aristocrat from the rural VendÃ©e region. He is one of the only politicians campaigning on issues directly related to the European Union. For many years, Villiers has been leading his own party, the Mouvement pour la France (MpF). Though he only gained 2.23% of the vote in the 2007 French presidential elections, he has been a member of the European Parliament since 1994. He defends French national sovereignty and opposes the EU’s project of building a federal European state, as embodied in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, a brain child of Nicolas Sarkozy and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Villiers has teamed up for next month’s European elections with the small rural party CPNT (Chasse, PÃªche, Nature et Traditions: Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition) and with the British-born Irish millionaire entrepreneur Declan Ganley, who financed Libertas, the successful lobby that advocated a “no” vote in the June 2008 Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr. Ganley has established Libertas as a political party in several EU countries. Libertas France, however, is not a party in its own right, but a Ganley-funded coalition of MpF and CPNT with Viscount Villiers at its helm. It campaigns against the Lisbon Treaty, against Turkish accession to the EU and against uncontrollable immigration into the EU. The coalition of the Catholic Viscount, the countryside lobby of French hunters and fishers, and the Irish millionaire, represent the reaction of the France heartland - la France profonde - against the French urban political establishment. The sense of physical insecurity which many French are currently experiencing, despite Mr. Sarkozy’s assertions that he is going to do something about it, may lead many urban French to cast a vote against the EU next June.
Last week’s Ifop poll predicted, however, that the UMP’s position as France’s largest party is not endangered. What the party may lose on the right, it is expected to pick up on the left. The French Parti Socialiste (PS), once the country’s dominant political force, is still in disarray, torn apart by an internal struggle between its two leading women, SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal, who lost the French presidential elections to Mr. Sarkozy in 2007, and Martine Aubry, the daughter of Jacques Delors, the former President of the EU Commission. After the 2007 elections, Sarkozy, having crushed the right, offered top posts in his government to leading Socialists and began implementing PS policies. The PS is also expected to lose heavily to the far-left. The Ifop poll predicts that the Trotskyite New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) will gain over 7% of the votes and the Communist Party over 6%. The center-left Democratic Movement (MoDem) of FranÃ§ois Bayrou, a farmer from the Pyrenees region in the deep southwest of France and a former Education Minister, is expected to gain over 13%. Mr. Bayrou, whom the press calls “le pasteur Bayrou” (shepherd Bayrou), is also a representive of la France profonde. He has stubbornly refused to join Sarkozy’s UMP and hopes to become the only credible alternative to the left of the president in the presidential elections in 2012.