Ahead of Election, Sarkozy Advocates Protectionism

The French president decried “savage competition” from abroad.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to withdraw from Europe’s open border area on Sunday and advocated a “Buy European” policy for its member governments. The protectionist rhetoric may win him critical right-wing votes in the upcoming presidential election but are likely to invite the ire of European neighbors.

Addressing tens of thousands of supporters in the city of Villepinte north of Paris, Sarkozy said that Europe’s borders had to be fortified to stem the influx of immigrants and cheap products from abroad. He also championed legislative action on the European level to mandate governments to favor homemade products over foreign manufactures and warned that if there wasn’t progress in this area, France would apply such a rule unilaterally.

“I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition,” the embattled French president said.

I say no to a Europe that opens up its markets when others don’t. Such behavior does not mean accepting free trade. It means accepting being a Europe that is a sieve.

European free trade and open border policies are especially unpopular with blue-collar voters who have seen factories shuttered and their jobs displaced. They are an important constituency for the far-right Front national whose standard-bearer and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen campaigns on a platform of economic nationalism.

Le Pen is unlikely to make the second round of the presidential election in April when Sarkozy desperately needs her votes to defeat his Socialist Party rival François Hollande.

Unlike Sarkozy, Hollande champions direct public support of French industries and is adamantly opposed to privatizing state-owned enterprises even if government spending accounts for half of French domestic product and finances entire industries, including electricity, postal services and railways.

The socialist candidate has also criticized the president’s push for labor market deregulation which would make it easier for firms to lay people off and harder for jobseekers to gain unemployment compensation.

President Sarkozy’s criticism of Europe’s open-border policy will probably not be received well in other parts of the continent. The free movement of goods and people is one of the cornerstones of European integration and has facilitated a rapid rise in incomes and economic expansion in Central and Eastern European states that joined the union recently.