By Julio Godoy
In 1997, a group of French economists, opponents of neo-liberal globalisation, and journalists at the monthly newspaper Le Monde diplomatique rescued from academic obscurity Nobel laureate James Tobin’s proposal to introduce a small tax on worldwide currency transactions, with which the late American economist originally wanted to “throw some sand in the wheels of … international money markets.”
For the French activists, the Tobin proposal had a second justification. Beyond the deceleration of noxious financial globalisation, the tax would help states to collect some money, actually billions of dollars, which could be use to pay for good deeds, such as social, environmental, and development policy measures. From that alliance emerged the group ATTAC, after the French name of the Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens. ATTAC has been advocating the international introduction of the Tobin tax.
Back in 1997, a certain Nicolas Sarkozy, then an obscure second rang French politician, called the Tobin tax “an absurdity.” In a television interview at the time, Sarkozy argued that such a tax would be counterproductive for the French economy. “Every time that we tax the creation of wealth in our country, we contribute to its creation somewhere else,” meaning that deregulated, untaxed financial transactions were homonymous with wealth and prosperity.
Ten years later, already serving as president of France, Sarkozy ordered the minister of finance, a certain Christine Lagarde, now head of the International Monetary Fund, to quash the levy on financial transactions on the French stock exchange. Lagarde acted quickly. She argued that by suppressing the tax, the French conservative government wanted to “reinforce the competitiveness of the French stock exchange market.”
Yet five years later, Sarkozy, now facing a tough presidential election (April 22 and May 6, 2012), has swiftly gone on distance from his earlier, consistent condemnation of the Tobin tax, and has become the European leader of the governments pleading for such a levy on international financial transactions. Implicitly, Sarkozy admits that the deregulation of international financial markets never contributed to the “creation of wealth”, neither in France nor anywhere else in Europe.
This volte face is not the only one Sarkozy has practiced recently. He has publicly apologised for many of his earlier habitudes – such as his repeated ostentatious celebrations with rich friends in posh restaurants, his reckless acceptance of economic niceties paid for by these very same friends in exchange for state-financed benefits, his verbal injuries against opponents, and so on. In one word, he has promised not to be himself anymore.
Can it be that Sarkozy has really changed and is now a mature middle aged man, not to speak of a real statesman? There are many reasons to doubt. For one thing, Sarkozy has been an opportunist all his life. In the early 1990s, he was a young member of the French conservative Neo-Gaullist party and in particular supporter of its uncontested leader at the time, Jacques Chirac.
In 1993, however, when Chirac’s leadership started to face a strong internal opposition, Sarkozy rallied behind his challenger, the then prime minister Edouard Balladur, who aspired to become president in 1995. But Sarkozy’s political calculations proved wrong: Balladur lost the internal party struggle, and, weighed down by Chirac, he rapidly disappeared from the political stage. Sarkozy also almost followed him. At least, Sarkozy’s walk to Canossa lasted several years. By the late 1990s, he was back again among the rank and files of the Neo-Gaullist party, closely collaborating with Chirac again.
There are numerous other proofs of Sarkozy’s political opportunism and incoherence. They are as legendary as his tendency to inconsequential bravado. For instance, in 2004, Sarkozy was serving as interior minister, he threatened immigrant youth living in the outskirts of Paris, who were violently protesting against poverty and segregation, to come “with the Kaercher” (an industrial cleansing machine) to get rid of them. Some months later, he launched a programme of restructuring these suburban regions to allegedly offer new opportunities to that very same youth. Be he never followed either of the two strategies. He was never seen with a Kaercher in the poor neighbourhoods outside Paris nor did the restructuring programme he had pompously launched have any meaningful substance.
In early 2011, at the beginning of the Arab spring that eventually brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Sarkozy’s government proposed to the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali police and military aid to “pacify the country.” Three months later, Sarkozy was pivotal in launching the NATO military attack to depose and kill Muammar Gaddafi – the very same messianic Gaddafi Sarkozy had been cosying up with a couple of years earlier. In December 2007, Sarkozy even offered nuclear technology to Gaddafi!
On the other hand, according to practically all opinion polls, it is very likely that Sarkozy will lose the presidential elections next April. In the past, whenever he faced similar prospects, Sarkozy resorted to all possible tricks to fool the electors: He, son of Jewish immigrants, has adopted racist positions against African immigrants first made popular by the neo-Fascist Front National party.
He has instructed his closest collaborators to perpetrate all kind of provocations – for instance, recently his minister of the interior Claude Guéant said that “not all cultures were worth to continue to exist” – by way of a new assault against immigrants, and an unmistakable kowtow before similar repeated verbal derailments by Front National’s leaders Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen.
Additionally, Sarkozy’s government has been involved in numerous corruption affairs. In the best documented case, his former minister of budget, Eric Woerth, is facing a judiciary inquiry for influence peddling and illegal financing of Sarkozy’s party. Woerth faces accusations that he helped the multimillionaire Liliane Bettencourt to evade taxes, while at the same time he was taking donations from her for the presidential party. To make the case worst, Woerth’s wife worked for Bettencourt.
Corruption, peddling of influence, and illegal grants of public benefits for friends – you name it. Sarkozy’s government has known it all.
Furthermore, Sarkozy’s government has been utterly inefficient. Practically all measures it has adopted during the past five years have either been counterproductive, such as the substantial tax cuts for the wealthy adopted at the very beginning of his term in 2007, or simply crepitated without any positive effect for the country, such as the numerous environmental and social “summits” Sarkozy let organise.
If anything, his government is the living proof of what French call “the politics of spectacle”, an unsubstantial show carried on for mere propagandist effects, but empty of any content. No wonder then that during Sarkozy’s mandate since 2007 the French economy has fallen from stagnation into recession, and is facing a massive deindustrialisation, which puts the country’s future on a most difficult path. Not to speak of the pressing social problems Sarkozy never tried to address.
Despite this long list of sins, Sarkozy enjoys during the present electoral campaign the open support of his Conservative European fellow heads of governments. German chancellor Angela Merkel declared during a recent interview with French television, that she supported Sarkozy “in all things he does.”
According to press reports both in Germany and in France, Merkel has also decided to boycott the main French opposition presidential candidate Francois Hollande, on the basis that his programme to deal with the present financial and sovereign debt crisis does not correspond with what Le Monde Diplomatique has aptly named The Berlin Consensus – in analogy to the most abhorred neoliberal adjustment programme imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Washington-based international financial institutions upon developing countries facing their own debt crisis. Allegedly Merkel and Sarkozy have even called their conservative counterparts in Spain, Italy, and Britain to boycott Hollande and close ranks behind Sarkozy.
Hollande has indeed said that the main opponent of his future government would be “the international financial markets” – the very same markets that in the recent past European leading conservative rightly called “unleashed monsters”. He has also vowed to recuperate the democratic elected governments’ legitimacy against this enemy, by imposing higher taxes, tougher regulation and in general a larger public control upon banks, hedge funds, and other speculators.
Such a policy is unheard of in present-day Europe, where the Berlin Consensus, of austerity, of reducing public spending in all areas, from education to industrial policy, slashing welfare benefits, and in general strangulating economic growth and thus condemning large chunks of the population to poverty once only known in African, Asian and Latin American countries, has become the one and only economic religion.
This Berlin Consensus is not only stalemating the European present, by pushing the whole continent into an economic recession, at its worst in Spain, Greece and Portugal. Even the Netherlands and Germany are now facing a recession. But the Berlin Consensus is also hypothecating the continent’s future: it’s the European youth who is most suffering of unemployment, poverty and lack of perspectives.
Apart from the possibility that this conservative boycott against Hollande backfires – on March 1, Sarkozy was booed in public during an electoral tour his party had carefully organised in the French Basque Country. The president had to escape from the infuriated masses and find refuge in a coffee house.
The political boycott against Hollande is also unprecedented in Europe. Until now it was customary that government heads would publicly meet democratic opposition leaders of foreign European Union countries, as a matter of mere democratic political courtesy. What the Conservative European governments plan to do against or with Hollande, in the likely case he is elected president next April, remains their secret. That Sarkozy may have called for this kind of international “solidarity” shows the dimensions of his political penury. It is a penury his country is paying a high price for.