I was on my way to the Petit Palais today, when I walked unwittingly into a pro-Sarkozy rally at Place de la Concorde. With the presidential election one week away, each had their supporters out in full force in different corners of the city. I didn’t have the good fortune to happen upon the others – Mélenchon’s took place earlier, at the Bastille, and Hollande held his in Vincennes, near his working-class constituency.
When I was learning French in Besançon ten years ago, my professors liked to use a discussion of the national flag to demonstrate what they viewed as fundamental political differences between Europe and the United States. French people were uncomfortable, they insisted, with Americans’ propensity toward patriotic display; the tricolor might designate government buildings, but it would never fly outside of the average French home. Flying the flag in a domestic space would recall a Fascist past when defining national belonging ended tragically for those deemed outsiders.
Today, however, I found myself in a sea of red, white, and blue, with a strong wind whipping the drapeaux in the hands of nearly every one of the rally’s participants. Ninety nine percent of them were what I like to call “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois”-French – middle-class whites whose origins lie in the hexagon. The entire event was carefully orchestrated to legitimize Nicolas Sarkozy’s by placing him among the symbols of French sovereignty.
Speaking from a white tent in the center of the Place de la Concorde, where Revolutionary France brought its former nobility to the guillotine, Sarkozy stood in the shadow of the Luxor obelisk brought from Egypt in 1833, a gift from Mehmet Ali to thank France for its support of his revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Rectangular banners lined the circle, each one of them suggesting the column at the center. One side read “La France Forte,” the other, “NS 2012.” Giant video screens repeated the slogans on either side of the candidate, the blue and white colors drawn from the national flag, but noticeably banishing the third color. Red is the color of communist internationalism and is used by both of Sarko’s left-leaning rivals (Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Front de Gauche and François Hollande’s Socialists).
Every sightline reinforced a narrative of national supremacy – the Louvre behind the candidate, simultaneously evoking monarchical power and cultural patrimony; the Eglise de la Madeline to his right, attesting to France’s Christian heritage; the National Assembly and the Ecole Militaire, containing Napoleon’s tomb, to his left. As Mr. Sarkozy looked out over the crowd, he would have had a clear view of the Champs Elysées, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, erected by Napoleon to celebrate his victory at Austerlitz in 1805. Behind it the Avenue de la Grande Armée and the Esplanade de General de Gaulle stretch all the way to the Grande Arche de La Défense, which celebrates modern French technological development. The Eiffel Tower, in the distance, hovered over it all.
The symbolic weight of the event could hardly have been coincidental. Sarkozy has spent his presidency attempting to recreate France in a nationalist mold. From strong-arming the European Union under the guise of leadership, to deporting Roma migrants, to calling for restrictions on immigration, he has sought to position himself as a new Napoleon, strengthening France internationally and internally. The placement of the initials NS on his campaign posters attests to that – it is the latest installment of a series of inscriptions bearing imperial initial “N,” on the Louvre, on the Pont Neuf, and on all the trappings of royal power.
Yet Sarkozy’s campaign rests upon reviving a France that never was. Supporting Mehmet Ali in the 1830s left France isolated and fearful of decline as the British empire expanded. Catholic France was always contested, from the Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century, revolutionary deism in the eighteenth, secularist movements in the nineteenth, and general religious apathy today. The Monarchy lost it head – literally – and Napoleon lost his empire. His descendants, temporarily returned to power, were stripped of it in the nineteenth century, and humiliated internationally.
Holding his rally among the symbols of French sovereignty, Sarkozy stood with his back to the ghost of the Tuileries palace. He had forgotten that he spoke among the ruins of another France, the one invaded by the Prussian Army and burned down by Communards in 1871, overrun by Nazi tanks in 1940, and occupied by students in 1968. Sarkozy’s slogan of “La France Forte” is supposed to imply strength; instead, it suggests a France under siege, from immigrants, from Europe, and from the less glorious aspects of its past. Burying these elements doesn’t make them any less a part of France’s national history, and Sarko has unknowingly built his fortress upon their foundations.