Sarkozy Agonistes

Both Domestically and Internationally, the French President Has Suffered a Dramatic Fall From Grace

“Why do they hate us?” asked the Americans of the Islamic fundamentalists after 9/11. “Why do they not like me?” could be the question asked by Nicolas Sarkozy to the French after more than one year in power.

Sarkozy is omnipresent both domestically and internationally. On July 13, the leaders of more than 40 countries attended the first gathering of the “Union for the Mediterranean” in Paris. France is back in the world and in Europe. Domestically, an ambitious and difficult program of long-awaited reforms, which a majority of French citizens recognize are inevitable, has begun, with some early results in the field of labor law and education. Sarkozy’s energy, willpower, and activism are nothing short of spectacular.

And yet he is the least popular of the Fifth Republic’s presidents, the one whose “fall from grace” with the French has been the most spectacular, rapid, and durable, to the point where political experts, and his friends and foes alike, wonder whether he can rebound.

What went wrong?

“I don’t want a good General, I want a lucky one” the French Emperor Napoleon I used to quip. By that standard, he would not have wanted Sarkozy. Having campaigned on a promise to restore and improve the French people’s purchasing power, Sarkozy came to power in May 2007, just a few weeks before the sub-prime mortgage crisis erupted, and a few months before commodity prices exploded. He then assumed the European Union presidency just days after the resounding Irish “No” to the Lisbon Treaty reduced his role to an exercise in damage control at best. And, to make matters worse, the French soccer team, whose World Cup victory in 1998 gave his predecessor Jacques Chirac a short respite and a passing popularity boom, was humiliated in June’s Euro championship.

Yet the international context, with its unforeseen events, does not suffice to explain Sarkozy’s unpopularity with the French. His problem stems from the combination of his essence and style, which adds up to a brutal lack of coherence.

As economic crisis engulfs France and most of the world, the French are not reassured by their young and energetic president. Of course, there is an element of deeply unfair subjectivity in this perception. But this is what politics is all about. The president’s physical appearance and his body language – if he was a Shakespeare character, he would probably be the traitor Iago in Othello – are part of the problem. His nervousness, his impulsiveness verging on vulgarity, is disconcerting even for the majority of French who voted for him.

At home for example, the badly needed reform of the army has been accompanied by unnecessary malignity, as if a former interior minister imbued with a “police culture” was utterly incapable of understanding the “army culture” and its sense of honor. And his undeniable success in implementing his labor laws, exemplified by sparse street demonstrations, has been undermined by his irrepressible will to provocation, reflected in his gratuitous remark that “today when there is a strike in France, no one notices it!”

In his foreign policy, too, Sarkozy seems to combine the right intuitions with the wrong tactics – that is, when his entire strategy is not marred by the pursuit of contradictory objectives. France’s policy toward China and the issue of the French and EU president’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics has represented a spectacular illustration of this lack of consistency. Sarkozy misjudged the balance of power between France and China, and France came out of that diplomatic episode badly bruised, with its president swallowing his human rights claims and bending to the diktat of realpolitik.

In the same vein, there is a mismatch in Sarkozy’s approach to Europe between the message and the messenger, between careful diplomacy needed to create a new consensus within the European Commission and with countries like Ireland, and the president’s rather authoritarian style.

While Sarkozy’s popularity remains low, a majority of the French want him to succeed, for he has four more years to go, and there is no alternative around the corner. The left remains in disarray, caught between its internal feuds and the rise of anti-capitalist extremism at its margins.

For a president bent on implementing reforms, “less can be more” – less aggressiveness and less ego. But can a man act against his deepest nature? The answer is probably no.

 

Dominique Moisi is a founder and Senior Advisor at the French Institute for International Relations and is Professor at the College of Europe in Warsaw. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.  

www.project-syndicate.org

Share This Post

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone