The Sarkozy Effect
ROGER COHEN | NYT NEWS SERVICE
IN the other election of 2012, the one more imminent, there are only two words worth remembering.
The first is leadership. The second is change. The rest, as the French say, is du blah-blah.
If the French decide leadership is more important in a time of crisis they will grit their teeth and re-elect Nicolas Sarkozy. If they want change from a president never close to their hearts, they will as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, embrace hope over experience and elect the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande.
On the face of it, Hollande, slimmeddown and cultivated in a way the French like their presidents to be cultivated, should prevail. He has a clear if narrowing lead in opinion polls. The unemployment rate, at a 12-year high, is rising toward double figures. Pension reform has been unpopular. The national mood is sullen even by Gallic standards. The euro agonizes. The left has not held the presidency since, in another era, Francois Mitterrand stepped down 17 years ago.
In short, this is the French left’s election to lose. They may just do so.
I visited Paris a week ago, persuaded that Hollande would edge it. I came away thinking Sarkozy is the more likely winner. The president’s political courage is undeniable: A lot of people who can’t stand him now sense they may need him.
Hollande, the gentleman who went to the right elite schools, has charm and humor but has done nothing to dispel the notion he’s a waverer in the crunch.
In a rambling appeal to voters this month, published in the daily LibÃ|ration, he managed not to mention the rest of the world apart from a de rigueur condemnation of ‘unbridled globalization.’ His vague exhortations reeked of navel-gazing sanctimony.
A telling moment came recently when Hollande, in talking about Sarkozy, used the phrase ‘un sale mec’ roughly a nasty piece of work. How he used the term has been disputed. It does not matter. The language provided an insight into his subconscious and that of a wide swathe of the French bourgeoisie. (Hollande is a bourgeois of the left).
To them Sarkozy, who went to the wrong schools, is forever the outsider, the upstart, the usurper a ‘dirty’ climber blinded by ambition and unworthy of incarnating the French state through the Fifth Republic’s highest office. Not for nothing is French rich in words arriviste, parvenu for characters, like Balzac’s Rastignac, who cut through social barriers to the summit.
So many in France want to see the back of Sarkozy. They dream of a comeuppance for this man of preternaturalagitation, but then think: Oh no! Not the left with its indecision, its stale slogans, its colossal ‘immobilisme’ that has somehow preserved class struggle as a tenet when most of the European left like the German moved on decades ago.
(The French left has a lot to answer for. It should not escape anyone’s attention that the current strength of the far right in the form of Marine Le Pen’s National Front owes much to the migration of all those ex-Communists whose adoration of Stalin never faded.) I mentioned Sarkozy’s courage. I’d say it’s what makes him the most interesting politician in Europe. But before that my caveats: When he panders to Le Pen’s right, the appalling treatment of the Roma, the wrongheaded dismissal of Turkey’s EU candidacy, the ever more restrictive immigration policy, he’s at his worst. The Napoleonic ego can also get irksome, although his glittering wife Carla Bruni has reined in its sharper expressions.
In the end what’s unforgivable in a politician is ego and ambition that allow no greater cause than self. That’s not the case with Sarkozy. He’s a doer and taboo-breaker bringing France back into the integrated command of NATO (and so enabling the successful Libyan mission); declaring that love of America is OK; reforming universities and the pension system against huge resistance; taking on the worthy Libyan cause where Jacques Chirac and Mitterrand would have waved it away (and where Germany shamefully did.) But Sarkozy’s biggest achievement has been with respect to Germany in the euro crisis. The crisis came as Germany turned away from European idealism exhausted by the financial effort of unification, angered by Mediterranean freeloaders, satisfied by its postwar redemption, bent more on material gain than great moral causes (bowing to Vladimir Putin, shunning Libyan freedom fighters).
Faced by all this, and an Angela Merkel who had privately compared him to Mr Bean, Sarkozy did not turn away in a huff. He persevered.
Merkel was reluctantly persuaded that the cause of Europe overrode her citizens’ Euro-bile. The effort has been faltering, countless mistakes made. But the quiet recent moves of the European Central Bank to flood the market with euros and in effect act as a lender of last resort contrary to the treaty and despite protracted German resistance reflect above all an enormous French effort to bring Germany around. Interest rates for Spanish and Italian bonds are falling, panic receding.
Score one and a big one for Sarkozy.