"I'm not saying, 'After me, chaos,'" French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the newspaper Le Figaro with a wink in an interview published Friday, April 20, on the eve of the first-round election that saw him lose to Socialist Party leader François Hollande. But if Sarkozy was trying to make the indelicate point that, without him, the country is doomed if his looming electoral defeat in the May 6 runoff comes to pass, it's not just France facing an uncertain future. It's all of Europe. Critics like to paint the incumbent as "L'Omniprésident" and a "barbaric child," but the repercussions from his all-but-certain electoral rebuke might be vastly larger than "Tsarkozy's" critics take his ego to be.
1. The revenge of nationalism. Enthusiasts of the European project have more to fear than a historically strong showing by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party. Hollande's own brand of nationalism is equally suspicious of European austerity and Anglo-American cooperation. (He made waves announcing he won't go along with Britain and the United States in coordinating a release of strategic oil reserves.) Hollande's rise signals that leftist nationalism is no less ascendant than its equivalent on the right. Yet observers on both sides of the Atlantic have focused their fears on nationalist reactionaries, such as those dominating Hungarian politics, and have underappreciated two key developments.
First, thanks to the intimate center-right partnership between Germany's Angela Merkel and Sarkozy, the European left is quickly beginning to realize it does not hold a conceptual monopoly on transnationalism. The grand political project of putting nationalism in harmony with both globalization and ever-deeper European integration may express fundamentally liberal dreams. But its greatest proponents appeared on the right of center. Radicals' opposition to that project ensured that the respectable European left was unable to become its champion, while a man like Sarkozy faced no similar obstacles. Not until this election cycle has serious opposition to the harmonizing project emerged on the right. Sarkozy has tried to respond by pandering on immigration, but he is grasping. The respectable right is now the center of gravity for Europe's transnational hopes -- and the respectable left must consider what alternative to offer. For Hollande, who will likely now actually have to govern, the answer is simple: rediscover the nation as the focus of justice, and the state as its source.
Second, a deep disagreement over nationalism is brewing on the right, with the potential for far greater conflict than will be seen on the left. Norway's mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik might be crazy, but his transnational mission statement -- that European civilization is under mortal threat -- has broad conservative appeal. The burning question, if the right is right, is whether Europe as they have known and loved it can be saved on a nation-by-nation basis or whether a more unifying, transcendent approach is required. Some, such as Le Pen, answer resoundingly that only France, for instance, can save the French. Increasingly, other conservatives and reactionaries will demand that only a concerted, pan-European effort can measure up to the vast scale of the continent's religious and demographic change. A Sarkozy loss will strike a powerful blow against the idea that the conventional, center-right compromise on the nationalism question has any integrity. The European Union institutionalizes only one vision of transnationalism. In the long run, huge political possibilities could be opened up by a groundswell of right-wing interest in transcending the nation-state. In the immediate term, however, Sarkozy's departure will cause more people to fear transnational thinking as a vehicle for right-wing agendas.