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In Sarkoland

His father had not disappeared, merely remarried (he was to do so twice5 ), and became a business success. But when Nicolas’s maternal grandfather died, and his mother had to move the boys to an apartment in the suburb of Neuilly and needed money, her ex-husband’s visible wealth vanished and the court to which his mother appealed could find no assets to award as augmented support. Nicolas then was eighteen, and at the court remonstrated with his father, who snatched his arm away, saying, “I owe you nothing.” His biographer, Catherine Nay, writes that his friends all remember his subsequent violent, even obsessional hatred of his father.6


Sarkozy cannot be identified with any of the major rightist currents in the French past.7 He is not a Gaullist (even if his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, UMP, is commonly called Gaullist; it broke with the Gaullist tradition long ago). Sarkozy’s concerns have never been the great Gaullist themes of France’s unique destiny, and he seems indifferent to the geopolitical concerns of De Gaulle.

He is not really an economic liberal in the European sense either, pro-business and a free-trade advocate—as in the liberal parties across Europe. He advocates some deregulation of the French labor market, cuts in bureaucracy, and reduction of debt, but he also believes in “economic patriotism” and government interventions in industries important to the French economy. As economics minister, he arranged the state rescue of Alstom, France’s huge power and high-speed rail manufacturing conglomerate. He has also said that it was a mistake for France to have allowed the Indian Mittal Steel group to buy Arcelor, the French-owned Franco-Belgian steel giant. He wants the European Central Bank to be required to respect European political and industrial interests in setting interest rates.

He certainly does not belong to the old French reactionary tradition of family-work-religion, anti-republicanism, and xenophobic nationalism, nor to the boisterous modern manifestation of that tradition in the party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. In his election campaign, he efficiently destroyed Le Pen as a political force in France by restating Le Pen’s themes, such as his opposition to illegal immigrants, in more acceptable form and stealing Le Pen’s votes. (Le Pen was eliminated with some 11 percent of the first-round vote—his lowest result in twenty-five years.)

Sarkozy is not a religious conservative, a defender of the natural order, hostile to money values, capitalism, and modern secularism. Yet as the campaign drew toward its end he repeatedly denounced the influence of “1968,” saying in his last big campaign speech a week before the final vote that the “events” of 1968 had “made the difference disappear between good and evil, between true and false, between the beautiful and the ugly,” undermining authority, courtesy, respect, ethical and moral values—“leading the way,” he unexpectedly and implausibly concluded, “to unscrupulous capitalism, golden parachutes, and criminal corporation presidents.”

Ségolène Royal protested, “But Monsieur Sarkozy, 1968 was forty years ago!” She might have added, “and you were thirteen years old at the time!” This unearned commitment to an indignation, the cause of which Sarkozy never experienced, seems evidence of ideology more than of conviction.8 Royal, in any case, was scarcely the appropriate target for such accusations, since her presidential campaign was undermined by many Socialist Party leaders and militants precisely because of her persistent departures from left-wing orthodoxy.

From the start of her campaign she jettisoned a Socialist vocabulary of evasion and euphemism to insist upon the damage done to many workers by the Socialists’ thirty-five-hour work week, which had outlawed overtime for families, many of which depended on extra work. They often were further victimized in the reorganized working arrangements necessary to conform to the law by being compelled to work unsocial and family-disruptive hours. She demanded a “just order” in France, a formulation from Catholic social doctrine, conspicuously non-Socialist.

She said that young delinquents—referred to in politically correct Socialist discourse as “youths” (les Jeunes)—who had committed “incivilities” should go to camps under military control where they would be instructed in personal discipline, serious work habits, and skills leading to employment. She said it was the family and neighbors of these young men who suffered most from their “incivilities,” including having the cars and buses by which they got to work burned or trashed.

She said that if teachers in the national school system (overwhelmingly Socialist voters) could find the time within their allocated hours to give paid private lessons to students they should be required first to give individual lessons to their own students who were having difficulties. She insisted, “as a mother of four children,” on the violence done to children by pedophilia and pornography (a theme that made many on the left uneasy). When criticized, she said “I may be a little off-key [en décalage] with the Socialist Party, but I am in phase with the French people.”


The main foreign interest in this election outcome has concerned future French economic and foreign policy. A certain amount of nonsense has already been said about the economy, a New Yorker article claiming recently that the French system had to be rescued “before it crashes.” The country, it said,

has stalled. Its growth is minimal. Its protectionist policies are disastrously out of touch with the global reality, let alone with the realities of the European Union…. Its business, beyond the realm of luxury labels and designer clothes that the rich will always pay for, is not competitive.9

The French problem has been a well-recognized failure to deal with recent social and structural difficulties, including immigrant unrest and persistent unemployment. However, France is a leading exporter of construction, municipal, and financial services. Air France–KLM is the biggest and most successful European airline. France possesses Europe’s most extensive high-speed rail infrastructure and is the principal exporter of high-speed rail technology.

France remains in other respects the leading high-technology country in Europe. With Russia absent from civil aviation and British Aerospace (BAE Systems) now effectively an American company, the Pentagon its largest customer, France arguably is the second-ranking aerospace power in the world, concentrating much of Western Europe’s defense, aerospace, and electronics industries, including Airbus and Arianespace (which controls 40 percent of the world’s satellite-launching market)—both of them French initiatives in which France remains the most significant actor. Moreover, the Dassault company is a principal military and business jet producer and a leader in computer design. France is also the world’s leading exporter of nuclear energy technology and nuclear electricity plants (78 percent of France’s own electricity is nuclear-generated).10 It will take a while for the economy to crash.

France underperformed the EU average in GDP growth last year but outperformed Germany for the entire 1996–2005 period (2.2 percent average annual growth compared with 1.1 percent for Germany). It is expected to be above the EU average for all of 2007 with a forecast 2.4 percent growth. At 2.2 percent, inflation is not an issue. At just under 10 percent, unemployment, although improving, remains stubbornly above the EU average, the result of France’s much-discussed and real difficulty in introducing greater flexibility in its labor markets.11

Much of the French left remains wedded to a Malthusian notion of work (there is a limited amount, which must be shared out; thus the thirty-five-hour work week) and it has a misplaced faith in demand-side policies of subsidizing employment and raising the minimum wage to stimulate consumption. These reappeared in Ségolène Royal’s election platform, but they have also characterized the Chirac government’s initiatives on employment; its demand-side experiments in giving incentives to companies to hire and expand ran into popular resistance. Sarkozy has promised immediate action to correct all of this (he has published his “100 days” of planned reforms) but the problems, and the inertia of the system, remain considerable.

Relatively high taxation, including an only partially capped asset-based wealth tax, as well as an inability to give youth a sense of opportunity, in part because of a traditional commitment to the virtues of formal academic achievement, have led to a well-publicized if somewhat exaggerated exodus of the well-to-do, the entrepreneurial, and the ambitious. Tax exiles are now reported to be uneasily considering whether it is safe to return.

France nonetheless remains the second-most-powerful economy in continental Europe, behind Germany, which is larger and more populous. Its attraction to international business remains such that during the 2003–2005 period (the latest for which figures are available) it received three times more foreign direct investment than Germany and two and a half times more than Italy.


The subject of foreign relations was largely absent from the presidential campaign, an indication that existing policy enjoys a large consensus of support. Sarkozy prominently presented himself last year as a friend of the United States and critic of the manner by which the Chirac government had opposed UN Security Council support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But in his foreign policy speech on February 28, he said that Chirac had saved the French from involvement in a war that was a “historic mistake.” On the night of his election victory, May 6, he said, “I want to tell [the Americans] that France will always be by their side when they need her, but I also want to tell them that friendship is accepting that one’s friends can act differently.” He added criticism of the US for its failure to do more on climate change.

There is an inclination by commentators, at times when national leaders change, to assume that international relations are heavily influenced by the personal opinions and relationships among leaders who like to refer to one another as their great friends and to pose for group photographs. Americans have not forgotten George W. Bush’s peering into the soul of Vladimir Putin the first time they met, and finding him good.

Sarkozy may like Americans more than Jacques Chirac did, but as his election-night speech indicated, France’s perceived national interests and its public opinion determine policy, once the niceties of protocol are set aside. The French public certainly does not dislike Americans, but on the whole it dislikes very much the policies, as well as many of the leading personalities, of the George W. Bush administration. The politician Nicolas Sarkozy may be presumed to see only too well what undiscriminating commitment to the support of American policies and the Bush administration has contributed to the destruction of Tony Blair’s reputation.

American appeals for closer transatlantic relations, as at the US–EU summit in Washington at the end of April, characteristically assume that European criticisms and opposition to the US reflect a perverse inability, or deliberate unwillingness, of French and other Europeans to understand the correctness of American policy, or are at best the result of misunderstandings open to correction. Thus calls for more support for the United States on Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and other issues, or for greater military spending by Europe, usually ignore the fundamental and well-founded disagreements that may exist.

There are major misgivings in Western Europe over the American program to install anti-ICBM missiles in Eastern Europe, seen by most European governments as unjustified by existing threats and needlessly provocative of Russia. There is mounting doubt in France, and in the Netherlands and elsewhere, about the rationale, utility, tactics, and political costs of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan.

French commandos worked in collaboration with American special forces in Afghanistan from 2002 until very recently; but the Chirac government’s military advisers have been expressing concern that a slide is underway toward repetition of the Iraq disaster, and have questioned the utility of continued French (and NATO) activity in Afghanistan. President Sarkozy is unlikely to overrule them just because he wants an invitation to the Crawford ranch.


The French electorate ordinarily gives a new president the parliamentary majority to carry out his program, and that has been thought almost certain to occur in the case of Sarkozy. His popular majority was a clear mandate for legislative chance in the structure of employment, social benefits, and labor relations during his inaugural summer and fall, and for a new and modified European Union agreement to replace the constitutional treaty the French rejected two years ago.

It has been reasonable to think that he would get the substance of the legislation he wants. His election has been relatively calmly accepted, with (by French standards) minor and isolated, if often violent, eruptions mainly in city centers by young people from the extreme left (rather than the feared demonstrations in immigrant housing blocks on the edges of cities). Paris assuredly did not burn as a result of Sarkozy’s victory.

Sarkozy provoked great surprise with two days of meetings with union leaders, to discuss how the social reforms included in his electoral mandate might be negotiated with a minimum of conflict. His ceremonial installation as president took place May 16, and he left Paris late that afternoon for Berlin to dine with Angela Merkel, current president of the European Union. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s campaign director, was expected to be named prime minister the next day, and Fillon to announce the members of his government on Friday, May 18. Fillon is a former education minister (in the Balladur cohabitation government of the mid-1990s) and is now a senator. He has a reputation for discretion and effectiveness in developing consensus. Like Philippe Séguin, president of the court of accounts, and a probable minister, Fillon is on the “social” wing of the UMP. He is one of a family of provincial notables, his mother a former university professor.

Among others expected to be included in his government is the maverick Socialist Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, and one of the most popular figures in France, reportedly to become foreign minister. Another Socialist, Hubert Védrine, foreign minister in the last Socialist government (and the man who characterized the United States as a “hyperpower”), is thought available for another senior appointment in the Fillon government, which is expected to be a compact affair of fifteen members. This unexpected opening to the left by Sarkozy has thrown the Socialist Party into confusion as well as angering intransigently rightist members of Sarkozy’s own party, but has met general approval, suggesting that the new president does not consider France irrevocably coupée en deux.

Ségolène Royal’s decision to run for the presidency was not really an unconsidered one. Since she had become a junior minister in 1992, polls had consistently named her one of the three most popular Socialist leaders. After the fluke defeat of Lionel Jospin by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, she was the only Socialist leader at the national level to run for a regional presidency in 2004, doing so in a region formerly held by the sitting conservative prime minister, and winning. She subsequently led every presidential poll of active Socialist supporters, thanks to unorthodox policy proposals and an unstudied manner, winning personality, and good looks. (She was photographed on the beach in a bikini during the summer of 2006, to which the general response was amused and highly favorable. “Fifty-three, and after four children…!)12

Her presidential race this year ruined the hopes of a half-dozen elders of the Socialist Party (the father of her four children among them) who had expected to settle the Socialist presidential candidacy among themselves. None would probably have done any better than she, since many held the obsolete Socialist conviction, going back to before 1981, when the Communist Party dominated the left, that only a united left can win elections.

In defeat, the Socialists now are split between elephants who want to go back to the old strategy of an intransigent and united left, despite the fact that the “left of the left” gained less than 10 percent of the vote in this election. (The only far-left candidate who did well was a personable Trotsykist postman with 4.7 percent of the vote, who took time off from delivering letters to run for the presidency of the republic.)

Against them is the new and younger movement gathered around Ségolène Royal, who has promised (or threatened, in the view of some elephants) to lead them and the disappointed followers of François Bayrou into the June legislative elections as an alliance of “socialists and centrist republicans”—an alliance yet to be formed, and difficult to achieve because it means agreement to eliminate rival candidacies in all winnable constituencies.

Center parties have not prospered in the Fifth Republic, but the Socialist Party, as it is, seems clearly moribund. An unexpected success in the forthcoming legislative election would, perversely, imply a return to stalemate. Success in the next presidential election, in 2012, will depend on what Sarkozy accomplishes in the meantime.

—May 16, 2007

  1. 5

    His second and third wives were both from aristocratic French families. A daughter of the third wife told Nay that he was a natural seducer, “turning it on and off like a water tap,” adding that all his wives left him “because papa was impossible to live with.”

  2. 6

    Nay, Un Pouvoir Nommé Désir, pp. 36, 54–58.

  3. 7

    The French historian Marcel Gauchet, writing with the late René Remond in Le Figaro, April 19, 2007.

  4. 8

    Some on the French left call him “an American neoconservative with a French passport,” and many of his supporters claim for him descent from the intellectual movements responsible for the Thatcher and Reagan “revolutions.” But neoconservatism has been strictly an American, Anglo-American, or American-Israeli affair, and Sarkozy barely speaks English and seems to have strictly French intellectual horizons. Some also have tried to connect him to Raymond Aron, the great philosopher-journalist of postwar France. But Aron, the spectateur engagé, was a rationalist liberal and enemy of ideologies. The intellectual “opium” he condemned came from Marx, not from the Herbert Marcuse of the 1960s.

  5. 9

    Jane Kramer, “Round One: The Battle for France,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2007.

  6. 10

    The country is also the world’s third-largest exporter of weapons, after the US and UK. Of all the European countries (including the UK) it retains the highest degree of independent scientific and technological capacity in the defense sector, including the nuclear attack and strategic submarine manufacturer DCNS (jointly owned by Thales and the French state), the only company outside the US and Russia that autonomously designs and builds these vessels, which distinguish independent strategic military powers from all others. (Authority over France’s sixty-four multiple-warhead submarine-launched ICBMs now, under the “reserved powers” of the presidency, belongs to Nicolas Sarkozy—a thought that may give pause.)

  7. 11

    OECD statistics; CEPII, L’Économie Mondiale 2007 (Paris: La Découverte), European Commission Interim Growth Forecast, February 2007, corrected May 8, 2007.

  8. 12

    A group of American campaign experts was invited to France in April by the French-American Foundation. They were impressed with the French candidates’ use of the Internet, especially Sarkozy’s site, and astounded by how little money could legally be spent ($22 million—€16.2 million—per candidate, mostly government-supplied), by the campaigns’ non-use of focus groups, and by the strict equal-time limit on television appearances of each of the twelve candidates (including two Trotskyists, the Greens, a hunting and fishing candidate, etc.). What most shocked one of the Americans was that Ségolène Royal had allowed herself the bikini photograph. That would ruin her in America, said Barbara Comstock, a Bush (not Clinton) adviser. “You want to look like a commander.” International Herald Tribune, April 13, 2007.

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