Compared to the revelry that marked the end of year celebrations with the popping of champagne corks and firework displays, President Nicolas Sarkozy's address to the French nation was a sombre affair, a “work and thou shalt reap” kind of speech, just five months before the next presidential election.

Though the President did not use the word “immigrant” it was clear that he was fishing in the extreme-right, anti-immigrant preserve of the xenophobic National Front party whose new leader Marine Le Pen, opinion polls show, is consistently gaining ground. She has called for closing French frontiers to foreign imports to protect jobs.

In his address, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy said: “Our social protection can no longer depend on work — so easily delocalised — for its sole financing. We must ease the pressure on our workers placed by imports, which compete with our products through cheap labour costs, and make them contribute financially.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Sarkozy's protectionist measures if and when they are promulgated will get the green light from the World Trade Organisation but he was clearly accusing emerging countries of “social dumping”, threatening to tax goods coming from countries that do not offer their workers the same wages and social protection as in the developed world. The French President also pleaded for a financial transactions tax which would finance the re-training of the jobless. Playing to the gallery, Mr. Sarkozy whose cosy relationship with the world of business, banking and finance is well-known said the world of finance “should be made to participate in repairing the damage it has wreaked. …It's a moral question, one of efficiency and a financial transactions tax should be introduced.”

There was a degree of desperation in the usual year-end festivities of spending and feasting as 2011 came to a close. For many, contemplating a bleak, even miserable 2012, it was like the last meal before going to the gallows or facing the executioner's block.

“I have spent money like water, literally broken my piggy bank for one last holiday spurt. 2011 has been so bad, the news so morose, I thought the kids and all of us as a family needed a last pick me up before knuckling down to the miseries that lie ahead. It was a bit like the last supper and I must say we really pigged out — truffles and oysters, foie gras, champagne and crepes suzettes. It is now already tomorrow and quite another day,” said data processor Marie Jose Bracet, raising her final glass of champagne of the evening a little after midnight.

Hangover

And on Sunday, as a new year begins, France and indeed, the rest of Europe has woken up with a massive hangover. “Its a hangover brought on by several years of past excess, of living far, far beyond our means with excellent welfare and social services, generous pensions, free education and health care. And now there is the realisation that the kitty is empty and all this good living can no longer be paid for by borrowing and more borrowing,” political scientist François Micquet-Marty told The Hindu.

But amid this sense of panic, desperation and despair there is also a need to look for scapegoats, someone on whom to hook the blame. “Evidently in this age of outsourcing and global mobility whether it be of finance, services, products or persons, anything foreign becomes the cynosure of all eyes, the element to blame,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau who heads the political research institute CEVIPOF at the prestigious School of Political Studies in Paris. In the prevailing atmosphere of populism and insecurity, delinquency, drug dealing, crime, race and Islamic fundamentalism have all morphed into a single dominating idea — that of immigration.

That immigration, whether regular or clandestine, will dominate this year's presidential campaign is a foregone conclusion. Already Mr. Sarkozy's Minister of the Interior Claude Gueant has given orders to tighten up the nationality code, to shorten student visas and to expel as many illegal immigrants as can be found. Henceforth it will be increasingly difficult for legal residents to have their work permits renewed or to acquire French nationality.

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