By Thomas Aitchison, Transatlantic Community Analyst
The involvement of German Chancellor Merkel in France’s 2012 Presidential Election potentially marks a new era of European cross border campaigning. However, if this election is anything to go by, it is not a successful strategy leaders should adopt anytime soon. French President Sarkozy continues to trail in the polls and Merkel’s support did nothing to help this. Sarkozy has failed to understand his electorate by presuming they possessed a European affiliation that he could tap into. Sarkozy has always polled well on foreign issues, but his attempt to remind domestic voters of his international notoriety has faltered, potentially worsening his candidacy.
The references to Germany began in earnest during a French TV interview on the 29th January, when Sarkozy mentioned Germany no less than fifteen times. He held Germany up as the example of economic strength that France should emulate. Although, at this point, Sarkozy had yet to announce his candidacy it was clear Merkel was going to join in. There are three potential strategies for why Sarkozy might have thought thrusting Germany into his campaign might have helped; (1) He hoped that some of Germany’s economic strength and positivity would rub off. (2) Sarkozy hoped that some of Merkel’s, or other European leaders, popularity would transcend. (3) Finally, he hoped to tap into the French public’s heightened level European identity and appreciation. All three of the reasons require the French public to look beyond their borders, and see themselves as belonging to something bigger than France, which has been a big miscalculation. Though France is very continental, the public maintain a strong sense of national pride and perceive themselves to be French before European, something which Sarkozy is now realizing.
The first strategy is one of hope and potential. Sarkozy chose to highlight Germany to send the message that ‘if it worked for them […] why wouldn’t it work for us?’ France’s credit rating downgrade was not only embarrassing but psychologically damaging. This is supported by an IFOP poll that found that 64% of French people think France should take a leaf out of Germany’s book. However, the problem is that the French like to perceive their relationship with the Germans as on an equal footing, by Sarkozy looking up to Germany it gives the impression that France is the junior partner. This inferiority complex has riddled Paris throughout the economic crisis, and was exacerbated by the call for electoral help by Sarkozy. Moreover France and Germany are not that fiscally alike. Merkel has become the face of austerity because her nation can afford to be, whereas France lacks that luxury. Therefore through association Sarkozy has soured his economic appeal and exacerbated this by brandishing the relationship.
Nonetheless, in France Angela Merkel is well liked, more so than other foreign leaders. In a BVA poll 53% of French people see her as ‘Very Good’ or ‘Rather Good’, whereas Sarkozy himself only achieves 31%. Therefore, it would make sense for Sarkozy to align himself with the popular Merkel, hoping that some of her popularity might rub off. Sarkozy is the only leader from Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the UK to poll negatively on the good-bad balance scale in all five countries, whereas Merkel is the opposite, with her strongest result being in France. This suggests Sarkozy’s strategy could work. However, as François Hollande’s campaign was quick to point out, ‘The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy needs Ms. Merkel says a lot about his situation’. As a result this association has been seen as a necessity rather than out of mutual admiration, and thus Sarkozy has come across desperate. If Sarkozy hopes for popularity through this association, he may be trying too hard. However, it has only been perceived as desperate because it is so rare in a domestic election. One has to wonder whether whether cross national electoral endorsements were to increase would it continue to be seen as desperate?
Finally, it can be argued that Sarkozy believed his electorate to have reached a point at which a transnational identity, or at least a care for a wider community, had been achieved. Merkel’s lack of hesitation supported this view too, the nations were so united that crossing boundaries and delving into domestic politics, seemed logical to both leaders. Merkel’s defense of her involvement had always been that they both belong to the same ideological end of the spectrum, even though ideology is usually overlooked at the international level. Yet the French electorate does not share the same nonchalance towards immersion into one community. This can clearly be seen by the rise of Marine Le Pen and the National Front, illustrating that nationalism is, indeed, on the rise.
Sarkozy’s realization of the fallibility of this strategy has been demonstrated by his recent rhetoric which is increasingly protectionist and nationalistic. Threats to withdraw from the Schengen agreement and France possessing too many foreigners are far from pro-European. He has consigned his appearances with Merkel to a minimum, appearing together but ‘not […] at a rally because an election campaign is the business of the French’. As a result, Sarkozy has started to gain traction in the polls, coming ahead of Hollande for the first time on March 11th. Here it is being demonstrated, as it has been seen in other European Nations, how the EU is the first to go overboard in times of trouble. Like an act of self-defense the EU is the punching bag for nations when it gets difficult, and the only way the EU is likely to overcome this is by further integration and fostering a European identity. Sarkozy thought that this time had come in the wake of the economic crisis, but like everyone else, when he saw his electorate lacked that transnational awareness, appreciation and identity, he too sacrificed Europe for the sake of electoral security. This is not to say that foreign campaigning will not and is not beneficial to candidates, but until it becomes a norm it is unlikely to be an effective strategy.