France's President Nicolas Sarkozy
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy's warning comes after Islamic extremist Mohamed Merah shot dead seven people, including three Jewish children and four adults, before being killed by police commandos after a 30-hour siege in Toulouse on Thursday. Reuters

The massacre of four Jews outside a school in Toulouse has shocked France in the middle of a boisterous presidential election. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his principal challenger, Socialist Francois Hollande, have temporarily suspended their campaign in honor of the murder victims.

Sarkozy nonetheless faces a long climb to re-election, given France’s precarious economy and several controversies he has been embroiled in.

The French president’s 2012 campaign seems reminiscent of the U.K. election in 1979, when Conservative Margaret Thatcher fought to become Britain's first woman prime minister. Like Sarkozy’s France, Thatcher’s Britain of 33 years ago was scarred by racial conflict, high unemployment and a fragile economy.

The International Business Times spoke to an expert on British politics to discuss the similarities between Sarkozy and Thatcher and their respective campaigns. Victoria Honeyman is a lecturer in British politics at Leeds University in England.

IBT: In his uphill bid to stay as French president, Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a crackdown on illegal immigration to France and a significant reduction in the number of legal immigrants into the country. Sarkozy is obviously seeking to take some of the votes from the extreme right-wing National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen. Do you see similarities between what Sarkozy is doing now and what Margaret Thatcher did during the 1979 election in the UK?

HONEYMAN: The British equivalent of the National Front in France has not had the influence that its French equivalent has had nationally. The far right in British politics tends to only have very limited electoral success, and that is usually regionally based and not seen in national elections. Therefore, fending off the extreme right, or stealing their supporters in British general elections is not a consideration. Many of these voters might well vote Conservative in national elections (particularly in the period under discussion) because of the lack of a viable alternative, so only a little encouragement would be needed.

However, reducing immigration and fighting illegal immigration (with very little differentiation between economic migrants and refugees) is seen as being “safe” Conservative territory, so it was no surprise that Thatcher focused on this issue.

It has to be said that the British Labour Party has an image of being less worried or knee-jerk about immigration, but this has not necessarily translated into government policy (particularly at the end of Empire when independence in certain countries triggered immigration to the UK from certain groups).

Sarkozy has a much bigger problem to deal with in France, where Le Pen poses a real electoral threat, and therefore Sarkozy has to be seen to be tackling this issue if he wants to squeeze Le Pen out and have any chance of attracting her supporters.

IBT: Thatcher’s strident tone against immigration essentially killed off the British National Front by co-opting its message. Do you expect Sarkozy to siphon votes from Le Pen, thereby weakening the French National Front?

HONEYMAN: It's very difficult to know. Supporters of various political parties can become very tribal and stick with their party through thick and thin. Other supporters and more temporary – that is, the “floating” voters -- will be the ones which Sarkozy is aiming to attract with his rhetoric.

Sarkozy needs to strike a tone which is moderate enough that he doesn’t drive away his existing supporters, but is “right-wing enough” to attract some supporters from the National Front, and that is a tricky position to find oneself in.

IBT: Sarkozy has uttered phrases like France has “too many foreigners” and that the French “way of life” is under threat from unchecked immigration. I recall Thatcher saying things like Britain was being “swamped” by foreign cultures. How much of this is election-year race-baiting and how much it is a genuine policy concern by Sarkozy?

HONEYMAN: There are issues in France, as there are in many countries including Britain, over race, whether they are linked to deep-seated problems like poverty, violence or racism or more short-term issues relating to specific incidents or events.

Issues relating to race are always a big concern, largely because they are so divisive and can erupt very quickly. Therefore, issues relating to immigration, integration and race-relations will always be a subject which requires attention in France. However, as this is an election year, there seems little doubt that Sarkozy is riding this issue in order to try to gain support. Unfortunately, the tragic shootings in Toulouse might have an impact on this, particularly if reports are confirmed that the shooter is affiliated to Al Qaeda, as was reported Wednesday morning.

IBT: 1979 Britain was beset by economic woes, as Sarkozy’s France is now. Do you think Thatcher won the election because of unhappiness over the economy? Or did her anti-immigration rhetoric put her over the top?

HONEYMAN: The reasons that the Conservative party won the general election in 1979 are quite varied, but there is no doubt that the economy was a major reason. The Labour government under Prime Minister James Callaghan had been beset by economic problems, not all of their own making.

The 1976 IMF loan really crippled the Labour government and the 1978-1979 “Winter of Discontent [which featured widespread strikes], where there was numerous industrial strikes, further damaged the Labour Party.

In contrast, the Conservative party have traditionally been seen as a “safe pair of hands” on the economy -- with the obvious exception of Black Wednesday in 1992 [when the Tories were forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism] and the fallout from that -- and that coupled with the move within the Labour Party to pursue a more left-wing agenda, which began in the mid-1970s and came to fruition during Thatcher’s first period as Prime Minister, really allowed the Conservatives to win.

Immigration was a secondary issue, one of interest to voters, but not an election-winning issue.

IBT: Germany has already criticized Sarkozy for threatening to pull France out of the EU’s open-border Schengen Zone. During the 1979 campaign, did Thatcher make specific proposals to cut immigration into the UK?

HONEYMAN: Thatcher made suggestions that the immigration quota would be cut, but argued that a figure could not be put on that cut until the Home Office released accurate figures on immigration (or until the Conservatives entered government and were able to see the figures themselves).

IBT: How did the Labour Party in 1979 respond to Thatcher’s comments on immigration?

HONEYMAN: The Labour Party criticized the Conservatives and argued that their policy was lacking in detail. Interestingly, immigration is only mentioned once in the 1979 Labour Party manifesto (as part of their section on 'One community' which largely deals with racism and unfair treatment of minorities), while in the Conservative Party manifesto immigration gets its own section “Immigration and Race Relations.”

IBT: Sarkozy is expected to lose re-election and now faces the sensational allegation that he accepted a huge campaign contribution from Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi during his first election in 2007. Was Thatcher favored to win the 1979 election, or did she too face an uphill challenge?

HONEYMAN: After the “winter of discontent” in 1978-1979 it was expected that the Conservatives would win the election, but it was not a foregone conclusion, as they had a woman as their leader, and this was rather an unknown quantity.

Would the British electorate really accept a woman leader in 1979? There were rumors within the Conservative party that Mrs. Thatcher was only a short-term leader and that, win or lose, she would almost certainly be replaced quickly for a much more “traditional” (i.e., male) MP. As it was, that was rather an underestimation of Thatcher.