Always eager to intensify the extremism of his rhetoric, the increasingly unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to regain approval by coupling a despicable criminal justice reform with a stunning disregard for the law.
Earlier this year, Sarkozy pushed through a bill that allows for “dangerous” detainees to be held in a detention facility after they have completed their sentences. A commission of three magistrates has the authority to order them back in jail for a year after examining the threat they pose; the decision can be renewed indefinitely.
The Left immediately appealed to the Constitutional Council, France’s supreme authority on constitutional matters. The Council upheld the law last week, but ruled against its retroactive application to detainees already serving their sentences. This prompted Sarkozy to take the unprecedented step of asking one of the country’s top magistrates (who almost immediately rebuffed him) to find a way to circumvent this decision, pledging that the law would be applied retroactively when all was said and done.
This law essentially authorizes people to be detained for crimes they might commit in the future, not the crime they have already committed, a stunning extension of the precautionary principle. “What is important for me is that we don’t let monsters free after they have served their sentences,” said Sarkozy in his answer to the Constitutional Council.
A sentence of 15 years in prison can now be transformed into lifelong detention with little publicity and possibility of appeal. To make matters worse, judges will undoubtedly be influenced by the pressure of knowing that they will be the first ones blamed if a detainee whose liberation they allowed ends up in the news once again.
Unfortunately, this debate confirms how difficult it is to oppose “law and order” reforms. No politician wants to be known as an advocate of criminal rights, while countless candidates campaign on the need to toughen criminal law. As a result, there is a seemingly never-ending drift towards stricter punishments with barely any push-back.
This pattern has been playing out in the United States for a long time, and has recently been extended from issues of crime to terrorism. Democrats trying to reform wiretapping laws are denounced for bringing aid and comfort to terrorists, and George Bush’s “with us or against us” doctrine has been applied to domestic contestation as much as to international relations. Now, the French Right is taking pages from the GOP’s playbook: One of Sarkozy’s ministers accused the Left of “choosing to be on the side of assassins.”
In fact, throughout this entire episode, the French president has displayed just how much he has learned from the Bush administration.
First, Sarkozy is placing himself above the rule of law by announcing his intention to circumvent the Constitutional Council, and his arrogance is strikingly similar to that of Bush’s tenure. Through his signing statements, secret programs and contempt for international conventions, Bush has accustomed us to an executive that openly disregards legality, and does so with such aplomb that it often seems too obvious to be possible. Thankfully, Sarkozy is not yet as versed in this art as his American counterpart, and his attempt at a judicial coup was met with widespread indignation over the past week, even by figures in his own party.
Second, Sarkozy has learned to counter difficult periods by resorting to a continual drumbeat of outrageous proposals that destabilize his opponents and drag the discussion back to his home turf — order and immigration. This strategy was amazingly successful during last year’s presidential election and the first few months of his presidency, just as it has been working for U.S. Republicans over the past few years. (Read: exploiting Iraq during the 2002 midterms or Bush’s fear-mongering in 2004.)
The French president enjoyed soaring approval ratings during the months following his election, and nothing seemed to burst the Sarkozy bubble. But what his stigmatization of immigrants and his assaults on the country’s secular tradition could not accomplish, the staging of his private life finally did: Fueled by the soap opera of Sarkozy’s recent marriage to model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, the president’s plunge into depths of unpopularity has been as brutal as it has been unexpected.
Now less than a month from potentially devastating local elections, Sarkozy is using his same old strategy of running on law and order and constantly coming up with new provocations to mask his failures.
But Sarkozy should remember where Bush’s tactics got him; soon he could be headed for the same fate.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.