A turbulent year in French politics
From a Green coalition gaining momentum in European parliamentary elections to debate on national identity to controversies surrounding Jean Sarkozy and Frédéric Mitterrand, here is a look back at the year’s highlights in French politics.
April 30: Bayrou accuses Sarkozy of abuse of power
One week before the second anniversary of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election, leader of the centrist Democratic Movement François Bayrou published a book called “Abuse of Power" in which he accuses his former rival for the presidency of undermining the French social model. Bayrou was unable to translate the book’s strong sales into electoral success at European elections a month later. His party only got 8.23 percent of the vote.
June 7: Greens give Socialists a scare
Mirroring the widespread European trend, France favoured centre-right parties in European parliamentary elections that saw low turnout; Sarkozy’s UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party and its allies garnered 31 percent of the vote. But the real surprise was the strong showing from the Europe Écologie coalition of European Green parties, a movement led by high-profile Franco-German political figure and former May 1968 icon Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The coalition grabbed 14 percent of the vote, coming in third and hot on the heels of Socialists. It remains to be seen if the Green party can pull off a similar performance in upcoming regional elections.
July 26: A presidential fainting spell
Just before the government broke for summer holiday, Nicolas Sarkozy suffered what was diagnosed to be a minor vagal nerve attack, a condition that can cause fainting, while out jogging. Sarkozy was only hospitalised overnight, but the French press and political world were already aflame with talk of the costs of the president’s notorious “hyperactivity".
September 21: Settling scores at the Clearstream trial
For almost a month, a Parisian court became a theatre for the explosive political rivalry between former prime minister and presidential hopeful Dominique de Villepin and President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Clearstream trial centered around accusations of the forgery and dissemination of a fake list of names allegedly aimed at tying Sarkozy to kickbacks of frigates. De Villepin accused Sarkozy of hanging him "from a butcher's hook" as prosecutors called for an 18-month suspended sentence against him, as well as a 250,000-euro fine. Though the verdict isn’t due until late January, de Villepin has already been raising his profile on the political scene through public appearances and online outreach, sparking speculation of a possible 2012 presidential bid.
October 5: The Frédéric Mitterrand controversy
Marine Le Pen, far right Front National party vice president, publicly called attention to an excerpt from a book written by Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand (the nephew of former Socialist president François Mitterrand), creating a controversy linking Mitterrand to sexual tourism in Thailand. The culture minister appeared three days later on primetime television to clear his name, insisting that his book in no way intended to promote or endorse sexual tourism or paedophilia. The fallout unsettled the right and divided the left.
October 14: Jean Sarkozy’s job bid sets off nepotism row
"From now on, what’s important to succeed in France is no longer to be born into the right family, but to work hard and to prove oneself by one’s studies, one’s work, one’s value.” So declared President Nicolas Sarkozy at the same time that his son Jean, a 23-year-old student, was favoured to take charge of the EPAD agency that manages the La Défense business district west of Paris. Faced with waves of criticism and allegations of nepotism both at home and abroad, “Prince Jean” finally withdrew his candidacy.
October 30: Jacques Chirac goes to court
For the first time in France, a former president of the Republic was prosecuted on corruption charges. Jacques Chirac enjoyed two terms of the immunity granted to all French heads of state but was ordered by an investigating magistrate to stand trial for allegedly diverting public money. Chirac stands accused of using his position as mayor of Paris between 1977 to 1995 to award contracts for fictitious positions. With Chirac’s former prime minister Dominique de Villepin fending off accusations at the Clearstream trial and former interior minister Charles Pasqua embroiled in the Angolagate affair, the legacy of the Chirac years took a hit.
November: The national identity debate veers off course
Immigration and National Identity Minister Eric Besson called for a prompt public meeting to ponder the meaning of national identity. The left denounced a strategy aimed at mobilizing the right before regional elections in 2010. But the debate has spiralled somewhat out of control, with controversial statements by several members of the ruling centre-right party, such as France's Secretary of State for Family, Nadine Morano. The issue of whether or not to ban the burqa in France also divides the Sarkozy administration.