Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s new president, addressed the US Congress on November 7, with his divorce behind him and with the satisfaction of two recent and considerable political accomplishments. The first was his success, in mid-October, in dealing with the first concerted challenge to his presidency—strikes by transport and other unions, accompanied by mass public demonstrations. The second was the European Union’s adoption, at its meeting in Lisbon the same day, of the shortened and simplified union treaty Sarkozy has promoted since becoming president. At an earlier EU meeting in June he had produced the compromise that appeased Poland and let the draft treaty go forward, to replace the elaborate constitutional treaty rejected two years ago by referendums in France and the Netherlands.
His divorce, announced the same day the strikes took place, was not one he wanted, and was of political significance because Cécilia, his companion and wife of the last nineteen years, was closer to him than anyone else, accompanying his ascent from mayor of the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly to France’s presidency. She was constantly at his side, traveling with him, telephoning, advising him, sharing and managing his office when he finally became a cabinet minister. She was not popular with his colleagues, but Cécilia was said to be “the nonnegotiable part of working for Sarkozy.”
She left him two years ago. “I met someone, I fell in love, I left,” she said. (It had been the same when she left her first marriage for Sarkozy.) This time Sarkozy won her back. However, she had said, “First Lady? Ça me rase [that bores me]. Je suis politiquement incorrect.” So it happened. The press has described her as “blunt, chilly, bewitching.” The less bewitched offer other descriptions, noting that she herself has said of Sarkozy, “I am his Achilles’ heel.”
He told a journalist from Le Monde, “I was elected by the French people to solve their problems, not comment on my private life…. It interests them much less than you, and they are right. Perhaps they have a greater sense of propriety and more discretion, sir.” This is what he had already told Lesley Stahl when she interviewed him, rashly thinking that he would tell CBS what he adamantly refused to tell the French press. He walked out of the interview.
Marches and demonstrations have always been part of the French political process, or even the dialogue, and there is a threshold beyond which a prudent government does not go in resisting demands backed by large demonstrations of popular discontent. However, France has the lowest rate of unionization in the European Union—7 percent—lower than in the United States, and membership is concentrated in the state administrations, notably the energy sector, the schools, and public transportation. Union power rests in the ability to close down transport or disrupt electricity supplies, blackmailing government by inflicting public inconvenience and distress, and disrupting business and industry. Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory last spring was widely taken as a mandate for change in this, as in other matters.
Following the summer break, he was everywhere on radio, television, and in the papers, issuing near-daily propositions for remaking France’s economic policy, labor relations, social insurance regime, employment policy, thirty-five-hour work week, university system, secondary education, NATO and defense policies, approaches to Iran and Darfur, relations with the United States, European Central Bank currency policy, the European Union constitutional treaty—as well as rescuing the Bulgarian nurses being held in Libya.1 The sheer number of his proposals strengthened him for the foreseen challenge by the unions. They were confused about where best to attack.
His success in dealing with the strikes was the result of factors curiously underestimated by the unions and much of the press. One was that talks with the train-drivers’ union had begun before the strikes started, and agreement with them brought the strikes to an end. Sarkozy is not a man who wants confrontation; he wants agreements.
The main transport and energy industry unions presented the strike as a preemptive blow against the entire array of social reforms Sarkozy had proposed. Their more fanciful leaders thought they could repeat the strikes lasting several weeks in 1997 that brought down the unpopular and obstinate government of Jacques Chirac’s protégé, Alan Juppé, precipitating legislative elections. The unions’ specific intention was to force Sarkozy to withdraw his proposal to eliminate certain special retirement benefits that are now widely regarded as obsolete and unfair. Most were granted to workers who had what in the past were seen as dangerous or exhausting jobs. (Early retirement was granted to locomotive engineers in the era of steam.) The unions underestimated popular support for this reform, their position being that the only acceptable change to any social gain by labor is extension of the same privilege to everyone else.
There was, in Paris, a very large and cheerful march in support of the unions on a sunny day, led by banners saying “All Together for Salaries, Jobs, Retirement, Social Protection, Public Service!” Bringing up the rear was a banner demanding “Save Our Universities!” Train and urban transport was widely interrupted, with the negative effect of reminding the public of probably the most popular reform of all those on Sarkozy’s agenda. This measure, which already has passed the National Assembly and goes into effect in January, requires reliable advance notice of transport interruptions, with a legally enforceable provision of minimum train, bus, and subway service. This reform poses a major threat to union power.
At the end of the strike day, the engineers’ union (the train drivers) went back to work. Calls by minority unions to continue the strike disrupted suburban rail traffic in some areas, and sporadically affected other trains in France, but there was no national blockage, and Sarkozy’s proposal was not withdrawn. Most transportation was restored in time for the final matches in Paris that weekend of the Rugby Union World Cup, where France played Argentina for third place, and lost a dramatic game.2
Several French Railways unions say they will strike again on November 13, but the united front has been broken. Sarkozy’s dexterous handling of his first confrontation with the unions demonstrated his professionalism as a politician—he has never had another job. During the summer, he was in touch with the unions (inviting them to discussions at his office in the Élysée Palace—something never done before), his message being that the electorate demanded certain reforms and he had been elected to provide them, but that he would prefer cooperation to force. (He was saying, in effect, “One of us has to be reasonable; in present circumstances, it better be you.”) The power to shut down national transport is the ultimate sanction the unions possess, and no one expects it to be easily yielded. It may be tested again when the law comes into force in 2008; but the weight of public opinion will determine who finally will be “reasonable.”
Sarkozy dazzled the press and the public following his election last May by forming a government including Socialists, centrists, and an unprecedented number of women and persons of immigrant origin. Naming several prominent Socialists to important posts, including Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, he greatly damaged a party already weakened by rivalry over its presidential nomination and the refusal of Ségolène Royal, the eventual candidate, to run on the orthodox party platform. Royal continues to be attacked by other Socialist figures for having lost the election, thereby preventing them from doing so.
A quarter-century ago François Mitterrand created the modern French left, rescuing the Socialist Party from minority irrelevance by forming a common electoral program with the Communists. The alliance succeeded in taking power in 1981. This robbed the Communists of what the advertising industry would have called their unique selling proposition, revolution, beginning a Communist decline that by now is near terminal. In the 1980s, the Socialist Jacques Delors, made finance minister, rescued Mitterrand’s government, which had been foundering in economic difficulties, by introducing “market socialist” reforms designed to liberalize the French economy. However, Delors has retired, Mitterrand is gone, and his legitimate successor, ex–prime minister Lionel Jospin, has been reduced to writing a spiteful and distressingly ungentlemanly book about how Ségolène Royal stole his party and robbed him of the presidential nomination.3
No one can be confident that the Socialists will be in any condition to mount a serious national challenge when the opportunity comes in five years. Several of the Socialist “elephants” beaten by Ségolène Royal for last year’s nomination are on the way to the political graveyard. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once a favorite, now has global horizons, thanks to Sarkozy’s nomination of him to head the International Monetary Fund in Washington. The unfortunate François Hollande, the dignified estranged father of Royal’s children, will leave the party secretary post but still hopes to become the Socialist presidential candidate in 2012. The remaining failed candidate for the party’s presidential nomination, Laurent Fabius, who claims to lead the Socialist left, is likely to be overrun by a younger group of militants, some from the Trotskyist “left of the left,” others followers of Ségolène Royal. Jack Lang, Mitterrand’s flamboyant minister of culture, considered a Sarkozy appointment or ambassadorship before announcing that he would not serve a government of whose immigration and fiscal policy he disapproved.
Royal retains the presidency of the region of Poitou-Charentes and is the only major Socialist to indicate a new party direction, toward a centrist alliance, as the Italian left has just done, breaking with the post-Marxist shibboleths of revolutionary change. She is described by admirers as possessing “the most powerful charisma of any Socialist in fifty years,” and polls now make her France’s favorite to challenge Sarkozy in 2012.4
Confidence in Sarkozy remains high (56 percent in the regular end-of-October poll). In a poll published in late September, belief in his “sincerity” had gone up by thirty-five points among those who voted for Ségolène Royal. A majority of respondents approved nine out of the ten social reform proposals Sarkozy has identified as most important. He lost points in overall approval, but among what pollsters identify as the less-well-off (moins privilégié) categories of the population he enjoyed more support than among the more well-to-do, his presumed natural constituency.
On the reforms the Socialist opposition characterizes as “anti-social,” meaning harmful to the less well-off, the polls indicate that the less-well-off classes actually support Sarkozy. These reforms include sanctions for the unemployed who refuse two job offers, modification of the thirty-five-hour work week to allow unlimited paid overtime, and “reemphasis on the value of work.”5
His immigration policy produced a brief protest when his reform bill was amended to allow DNA testing. This was criticized on the left (and by a member of his own cabinet of immigrant origin). The bill, as amended, permits the applicant for French residents to demand a DNA test (at French expense) to demonstrate mother-child relationship. Since such virtuous states as Norway, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands already use DNA testing, the legislation easily passed in both the National Assembly and the Senate.
Sarkozy’s opening to the left in forming his government alarmed his own followers, who thought he was moving away from his promised reforms. The number of his UMP party majorities in the Senate and the National Assembly both expressed this concern; the president of his party in the Senate, Josselin de Rohan, said that political “ecumenism has its limits. You can’t rally everyone at whatever price.”6
They also have been concerned by Sarkozy’s seeming disregard of Prime Minister François Fillon, constitutionally the head of the government and supposed to possess independent authority over policy; but who has had little opportunity to display either quality in the face of Sarkozy’s “hyperpresidency.” Sarkozy replied that he and Fillon are “interchangeable,” making up “an innovative and complicitous tandem [with] a single strategy.” On October 4, speaking to deputies of the majority, he said that a president needs to open up participation in his programs widely, including to members of the opposition. “It is not a choice but a duty.” He is president of all the French, and not in the service of “a clan or sect.” A cabinet can’t be composed of “peas in a pod, all alike, all with the same lack of flavor.” However, in constantly putting himself forward he is running the risk of making himself responsible for everything that happens, even when bad.
Nicolas Sarkozy had little to say about foreign policy during his presidential campaign, although he has described Iran’s nuclear project as the greatest current international crisis. He repeated this as president, when speaking to the annual assembly in Paris of France’s ambassadors, and again to the UN Security Council on September 25.
Last January, retiring President Jacques Chirac summarized his attitude toward Iran with the remark that “one more or less” nuclear-armed state among the developing nations “was not worth getting a headache about.” This, strictly speaking, is true, since in one or another way all the nuclear powers are deterred by the existence of the others, even the United States. Washington’s urgency about nonproliferation is not really motivated by fear of a suicidal “rogue nation” but is meant to prevent further proliferation of the technology, possibly to nonstate actors, and the development of nuclear military forces outside its direct or indirect control, which might inhibit or deter American (or Israeli) freedom of conventional military action.7
Addressing the assembly of France’s ambassadors, Sarkozy said that an escape must be found from “the catastrophic alternatives of an Iranian bomb and the bombardment of Iran,” exactly the formulation in current use in Washington (and no doubt used when Sarkozy visited Bush in Kennebunkport).8 His recommendation that the two most important French importers of energy, the oil company Total and Gaz de France, terminate their existing contracts with Iran and make no new ones gave substance to his position, which nonetheless is controversial in France. A majority of the French public opposes nuclear weapons for Iran, but it is not clear that it shares Sarkozy’s seeming endorsement of the American threat of an attack.
Sarkozy wants better relations with the US than existed under Jacques Chirac, which is sensible enough. He undoubtedly has enjoyed being flattered in Washington. He is said to think that Chirac’s opposition to the American invasion of Iraq together with his own new friendship with George Bush has put him in a position to play mediator between Washington and Tehran. This probably overestimates the Bush administration’s interest in improving relations with Iran as well as its interest in a mediator, least of all a French one.
In August Sarkozy said France should resume a full role in NATO, where it takes part in military planning and has a place in NATO’s structure; but its forces are not integrated into the alliance or under its command, merely available for “insertion” into NATO operations at the discretion of Paris. This is awkward and a source of tension, since as a French officer recently said, it seems to leave France with one foot in and one foot out, inspiring suspicions of a hidden agenda: “We give the impression of saying ‘no’ first, but ending up agreeing to a lot, and thus lose political advantage and influence, even though we play a big role operationally.”
Others think France is better off and has more global influence as it is, “taking NATO à la carte rather than the whole menu.” This is the view taken in a long study of French policy Sarkozy commissioned from the former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine, which argues that France’s international influence is closely connected to its nonaligned foreign policy.
Until now, faithful to the Gaullist national and geopolitical legacy, France has continued to conduct an independent foreign policy and maintain military forces capable of operating with full autonomy. It has been the principal advocate of an independent European role in international political and security affairs. It would be a major change in European-American relations if Sarkozy were to end this. If, however, the Iraq and Afghanistan crises remain unresolved after a new American administration arrives in 2009, or if there is an attack on Iran, expanding what its American supporters like to call World War IV, the public reaction could undermine NATO in Europe and strengthen support for European security autonomy.
France’s constitution gives the president of the Republic theoretically unchecked power in the domaine reservé of foreign and security policy. Yet in matters of international politics and security Sarkozy is the most inexperienced and unsophisticated president in the history of the Fifth Republic, although with able advisers, including Jean-David Levitte, the most recent French ambassador to Washington, now his national security adviser. Sarkozy was educated as a lawyer, and his career was entirely in French local politics, until he reached cabinet status, when he still had domestic responsibilities.
Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, was widely traveled when he took office; he had—and has—a passion for and sophisticated knowledge of Japanese art, as well as for the “first arts” of primitive people, for which he built the new Quai Branly Museum that opened in Paris at the beginning of this year. Chirac served as an army officer in Algeria during the Algerians’ war of independence. He was educated at the École Nationale d’Administration, which was created to teach government administration across the full range of official responsibilities. He spent time in the United States, had vacation jobs there, and speaks English.
Of Chirac’s predecessors, François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were both adults during World War II. Mitterrand served both the Vichy government and the Resistance, and Giscard joined the Free French Army following the Allied landings in Europe. Nothing like this has happened to Sarkozy, nor has he, in his writings or speeches, shown any particular interest in history or in international or geopolitical questions, beyond expressing the conventional views expected from a politician with national ambitions.
His relations with other European governments and politicians have not been helped by his craving to play the star, as in his well-publicized intervention with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acting president of the EU, to promote a redraft of the Giscard constitutional treaty that failed in 2005. Subsequent meetings with the Germans have prompted press reports indicating that Sarkozy’s manner is annoying in other ways, and that Merkel does not appreciate his bear hugs and kisses. (She is a married woman and clergyman’s daughter, and prefers from strangers the light pass of the lips over the outstretched hand, if the hand is to be kissed at all—not the common practice in Germany. Readers may recall her similar reaction to the impromptu backrub provided by George Bush at an earlier international meeting.)
At a Eurogroup meeting of finance ministers Sarkozy demanded that Merkel rebuke the German finance minister for having contradicted him. Merkel declined, and a sympathetic German observer of Franco-German relations later commented that this had confirmed German stereotypes of French megalomania, chauvinism, and arrogance.9 However Merkel and Sarkozy did agree in late September to a common initiative to give Europe “an economic foreign policy” to combat investment barriers and exchange-rate manipulation, and press for more regulation of “opaque” financial markets dominated by US and UK investors. The new French economics minister, Christine Lagarde (formerly an executive of a Chicago law firm), at the G7 meeting in mid-October, succeeded, against US resistance, in getting the word “transparence” into the final communiqué.
The rescue in July of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor imprisoned with them in Libya had been worked on for months by the Brussels office of the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero- Waldner. While Cécilia Sarkozy’s unprepared trip to see Colonel Qaddafi and one of his wives proved serendipitously successful, her intervention also made no friends for the Sarkozys in Brussels. At a subsequent ceremony of thanks in Sofia, Sarkozy told the nurses that after the eight and a half years the prisoners had been held in Libya, “it was time for someone to take the plunge” even, he said, if they risked getting their feet wet. Cécilia did not go to Sofia to be thanked, “wounded by the polemics that followed her intervention,” according to her then husband.
Sarkozy’s most important current disagreement with other Europeans, and particularly the Germans, concerns the European Central Bank (ECB), which adamantly persists in its founding mission, to block inflation in the Euro Zone, despite low growth and the “subprime” mortgage loan crisis. Sarkozy wants the ECB to act to reduce the growing gap between the euro and the dollar, a serious disadvantage to European exports. This position has support elsewhere, mainly among European exporters of consumer goods, who hope for increased sales abroad if the euro is cheaper; but in Germany fear of inflation has since 1925 become part of the national character, and an effort to manipulate the euro is feared as inflationary.
The ECB was founded in 1996 in the possibly rash expectation that a single monetary policy could be made to fit the European Union as a whole. This has worked until now with the thirteen members of the EU who use the euro, but seems very unlikely to function if extended to the twenty-seven present EU members. As a recent analysis by the private Stratfor security advisory group noted, never before have the two biggest of the thirteen euro economies, the German and the French, clashed so sharply on monetary policy, for reasons of objective national economic interest. The ECB was modeled on the German Bundesbank—the anti-inflationary financial institution par excellence—and has a board largely composed of European national central bank veterans, educated in the era when the Chicago School and the ideas of Milton Friedman dominated Western monetary theory. The bank currently is preoccupied by the inflationary pressures of rising energy costs.
The United States in the George W. Bush era has given lip service to Friedman’s doctrine while committing itself to trillion-dollar wars and unlimited foreign debt. The dollar consequently has fallen, which has been hard for euro-economy producers exporting into dollar economies. This is more of a problem for French and Italian luxury exports, and for Airbus sales—denominated in dollars but manufactured in euros—than for Germany’s less-price-sensitive industrial exports. France wants to lower the euro and ease lending rates to promote growth and employment. This is a major issue for Sarkozy, and increasingly will become one for other Euro Zone nations and possibly the EU as well, troubled by the discovery that its new East European members, rather than grateful and docile debutantes, can also be resentful and demanding, expecting compensation for their half-century’s victimization by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (as well as for historical grievances long forgotten in Western Europe).
Sarkozy the man is hard to assess since he is a person who has not cast a shadow.10 He admits to having been driven by an ambition that originated when he was a resentful, fatherless, “foreign” boy, with brothers taller than he and better in school. “I am fashioned by the humiliations of childhood,” he has said, although it is not apparent what these humiliations were or that they were so much worse than what his brothers and many other adolescents have survived. His physician mother worked hard to keep the boys in respectably middle-class circumstances, living modestly in a wealthy Paris suburb. He seems to have decided to become president when he was thirteen and first saw the President of the Republic—presumably De Gaulle, on some public occasion. He said, who is he? Told, he resolved to become that man.
He is treated today by commentators, biographers, and by himself in his campaign book as having been obsessed with gaining power (“supreme power” he says, as if becoming president of the French Republic were supreme power). But power to do what? One never finds out. Clearly he has the power to carry out his election program of eliminating obstacles to French economic efficiency. He has just announced an extremely ambitious program to create an ecological “New Deal” in France, and to make the country a world leader in dealing with such problems as global warming.
Beyond these tangible aims, what does he want to achieve? This is the blank in a personality otherwise dominated by politics and ambition.
It seems that he could as well be a Socialist, and do many of the same things he has proposed; thus he has declared an “open” government and appointed so many of his former opponents. He is certainly not an ideologue. American commentators and politicians who think he is a French version of Reagan, or a neoconservative, are fooling themselves. He is a French politician, wholly French in experience and formation, brought up to believe in central state power and responsibility, who does things that work and advance him and his career. He is a practical man. His interest is in power itself, not—so far as one can tell—because he has some personal vision about what to do with it.
Sarkozy is much too intelligent to be compared with George W. Bush, but he makes one think of Bush’s joy at becoming “a decider.” Bush is happy deciding, even though he knows nothing. Sarkozy knows far more, but still gives an impression of someone for whom the most important thing is to be the decider. His vulnerability is that he leaves little room for anyone else to decide. This can mean restlessness among a public that sees too much of him, as well as discontent and frustration in his cabinet and government (and above all in the office of the prime minister) and waste of talent. When some catastrophe arrives, as is to be expected, he risks being held responsible for it. There are times when a Fifth Republic president needs to dismiss a government and name a new prime minister.
Yasmina Reza, a French playwright and novelist, spent a year in Sarkozy’s company, following his campaign in order to write a memoir of him and, more interesting, of her reactions to him—his silences, her observations, his judgments. The result is a dispassionate and penetrating assembly of fragments, but without any discovery of the missing center.11
(It is telling that Sarkozy accepted her presence for a year without trying to influence her, and even—he says—without ever reading the book that came out of it. She remarked to him that she had never spent so much time in a man’s company without his making some kind of pass at her. Sarkozy replied, “It’s France that I am seducing.”)
Reza quotes him: “When I was young, I thought everything was possible. Everything was against me but I thought everything was possible.” Elected, he said:
Look. I have everything to be happy. I dreamed of having a political party. I have one. I wanted top ministerial posts. I’ve had them. I’ve dreamed of being where I am now. I’m here. But I am not excited. It’s hard. I’m already president. I’m no longer in the before.
It seems to have been all in the becoming; and now he has become, and has to reconcile himself to that.
Nowhere in what he says or writes, or in what people say about him, is there a trace of “I have always had a certain idea of France,” the famous sentence with which De Gaulle began his memoirs. A man who worked for De Gaulle said to me once that when he first met De Gaulle during the war he felt he had finally met a complete man. Nobody seems to know much about Sarkozy beyond his ambition—except perhaps Cécilia, and possibly even she did not know. And now she has left.
—November 7, 2007
December 6, 2007
A Romanian journalist, Cristina Hermezlu, wrote that she was reminded of a joke from the days of the Ceausåüescu dictatorship in her country: “If you plugged in the iron, you found yourself hearing them” (Courier International, Paris, September 13–19, 2007). ↩
A week later a nasty dispute involving cabin-crew wages disrupted Air France traffic, just as people were departing for the fall school holidays. However the breakdown in lengthy negotiations had nothing to do with Sarkozy, and talks have resumed. ↩
L’Impasse (Paris: Flammarion, 2007). ↩
The magazine Marianne, October 15– 21, 2007. ↩
Le Figaro, September 24, 2007. ↩
“Les états d’âme des parlementaires de l’UMP,” Le Figaro, October 1, 2007. ↩
The hypothesis of a “madman president” willing to commit national suicide is rarely believed even by those who put it about. Not even George W. Bush, not to mention a madman, can arbitrarily order a nuclear attack and be sure that it will be carried out. There are too many civil and military officials in a position to intervene, or even simple technical and military personnel who will have to execute the order and could obstruct (or publicize) it. The unexplained episode of nuclear warheads illegally flown from North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on August 30, for which at least five field-grade officers have been removed from command, with investigations continuing, seems to have been revealed by a deliberate newspaper leak from inside the Air Force. ↩
His campaign book, published in the United States as Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century (Pantheon, 2007), also employed the standard American admonition that “all options” must be open “for diplomacy to work” in dealing with Iran. ↩
Frank Baasner, “Sarkozy-Merkel: le poids des styles,” Le Figaro, October 23, 2007. ↩
See my article “In Sarkoland,” The New York Review, June 14, 2007, for a discussion of Sarkozy’s earlier career. ↩
L’Aube le soir ou la nuit (Paris: Flammarion, 2007). ↩