Bonhomie does not a policy make:
Sarkozy’s agenda is “to the left of Kucinich”
One of the reasons I know I’m doing something right on this web site is the fact that I’m lucky enough to have Bernard Chazelle as a frequent reader of and commentator on my postings, be they on matters Middle Eastern or the state of European football. A Princeton computer science professor, Bernard is an unfailingly erudite commentator with spectacularly diverse interests and fascinating insights — check out his personal page — and when I recently waded, rather ignorantly, into the minefield of French politics, he set me straight on a few questions. Now that Nicolas Sarkozy is the new president — and is being claimed in the U.S. media as being as pro-American as Chirac was ostensibly anti- — I invited Bernard to offer us some insights on what we should really expect to change in France as a result of a Sarko presidency. Bernard elegantly shreds the mainstream media picture of “France in decline,” but at the same time skewers the received notion of Sarkozy as an anti-immigrant vigilante or a Gallic Tony Blair.
I’m delighted to welcome Bernard in what I hope will be the first of many guest appearances on Rootless Cosmopolitan
Why Sarkozy Will Disappoint the White House
by Bernard Chazelle
The story has been all over the media: Nicolas Sarkozy might not be an easy man to like but France is the “sick man of Europe” and tough love is what it needs. If its new president’s odes to the liberating power of work
and paeons to “the France that gets up early” grate on the ears of his 35-hour-work-week nation, so be it.
Yeah, yeah, Sarko made few friends in the riot-prone banlieues when he called the locals “scum” and threatened to clean up the projects with a Kärcher power hose (a German brand, no less). But at least he promised them jobs and not more empty socialist rhetoric. Having missed the train of globalization, the French economy is collapsing under the strain of a creaky welfare system and a chronic incapacity to create jobs.
By rejecting the neoliberal creed, France has turned its back on modernity. Aware of its decline, the nation pines for its lost grandeur, a risible notion so quintessentially Gallic English doesn’t even have a word for it. The pro-US, pro-Israel, tax-cutting, union-busting Sarko is France’s best hope for breaking with the gloomy years of the past.
Nice story. Too bad it bears so little connection to reality. France faces serious problems but they are none of the above. Oddly, to get the country all wrong seems a bit of an art form in the U.S. media. On any given day, Tom Friedman can be found berating the French for “trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.” Friedman’s genius is to suppress in the reader the commonsense reaction—Indian engineers have no life—and improbably redirect the pity toward the French. That takes some skill.
‘French decline’ by the numbers
With the highest birth rate in Europe after Ireland, France contributes 70% of Europe’s natural population growth. GDP per head in France, Germany, Japan, and the UK are nearly identical. Growth over the last 10 years has averaged 2% in france, 2.1% in the U.S., and 2.3% in the UK. In the last quarter, France actually raced ahead of Britain and the U.S. Productivity is higher in France than in both countries (and 50% more so than in Japan). But pity the French: with their 35-hour work week, 5-week paid vacations, and 16-week paid maternity leaves, they work 30% fewer hours than Americans. Maybe that’s why they live longer (81 years vs 78) and infant mortality is lower (4.3 vs 7 per 1000). Unless the reason is France’s health care system: the best in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Or perhaps it’s the narrower inequality gap: child poverty in France is half the British rate and one third the American.
“French decline” experts like to contrast France’s catastrophic unemployment rate of 8.3% (lower than the U.S. rate during the Reagan years) with Britain’s marvellous 5.5%. In the process they miss two points: First,
France created more jobs than the UK in the last 10 years. (The discrepancy comes from the fact that France is younger and has experienced higher labor force growth). Second, virtually all of the job growth in the UK since 2000 has been the result of public spending. The neoliberals who so admire Britain’s recent growth
conveniently forget that it was built on a Keynesian binge through tax increases and a huge public sector expansion: from 37% to 46% of GDP in a mere 6 years. Gordon Brown at the Exchequer has, indeed, looked much the part of a French finance minister with a London office.
José Bové, the Astérix of French politics, has burnished France’s antiglobalisation
image by ransacking McDonald’s outlets wherever he can find enough TV cameras to capture his exploits.
But while France has been noisily scoffing at globalization for decades, it has quietly become one of the most globalized nations on earth. (Reform by stealth is a French disease.)
Some of the evidence:
Britain and Germany;
and its net FDI outflows have been the world’s largest;
figure is 33% for Britain’s and only 10% for the US.
What, then, is wrong with France?
Simply put, the French system serves the interests of two-thirds of the population (the insiders). The outsiders (the young and the old) have been knocking at the door for 40 years. The sons and daughters of North-African immigrants have paid the highest price. While a few might be seeking a new Muslim identity, which their parents shunned, the overwhelming majority of them have no greater desire than to integrate into secular French society. Savor the irony: the only practicing Muslim on the French national soccer team, Franck Ribéry, is a white Christian who converted to Islam. Integration has failed but the battle is not lost.
Half of all immigrant couples are racially mixed and a quarter of all French women of Algerian descent marry non-Muslims. (By comparison, only 2 to 4 percent of African-American women marry outside their race
and 5 percent of Britain’s South-Asian women do so.) The crisis of the projects is France’s biggest challenge in the years ahead. The problem is rooted in the twin evil of racism and the insiders’ fierce defense of the status quo. Sarkozy’s presidency will succeed or fail on his ability to break the door open to let the outsiders in,
and create jobs for the unemployed youths.
Sarkozy is blessed with all the attributes of a successful politician, including a unique gift for being a jerk.
In the back alleys of the banlieues, France’s former top cop comes off as just another white racist thug.
Soccer star Lilian Thuram might well be right that “Sarkozy stirs up people’s latent racism,” but as to being a racist himself the evidence is thin. Sarko actually never used the word “scum.” An exasperated resident of the projects asked him when he would rid them of the racaille (wrongly translated as scum; it means
rabble) and he repeated her plea in the affirmative. Likewise, “I’ll clean up the place with a power hose” were the angry words Sarkozy spoke to the parents of an 11-year old boy who had just been killed in a gang shootout—hardly Hitler addressing the 1927 Nuremberg rally. However, Sarko’s open admiration for the rancid views of my former Ecole Polytechnique colleague, Alain Finkielkraut, makes one wonder. One of the “new philosophers,” he is the French Niall Ferguson, who goes whining to Haaretz that “In France… we no longer teach that the colonial project sought… to bring civilization to the savages.”
On a personal note, I can never forgive Mitterrand for intentionally boosting Le Pen’s fortunes at the ballot box
in a Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategy. On the other hand, as someone who did not vote for Sarko,
I am still grateful to him for dealing Le Pen his biggest electoral blow. I also note that while other politicians regurgitate the same tired “solutions” to the crisis of the banlieues—namely, building more community centers named after great poets—Sarko has suggested somewhat more adventurous ideas,
such as a restructuring of labor relations, a more flexible labor market, hiring incentives, and even that big French bugaboo, affirmative action, all the while reaffirming France’s traditional rejection of communautarisme. But he is a figure of hate among minorities and, unless he can repair his image and build bridges, he will not accomplish much. The issue of ethnic integration towers above all others. The future of France hangs in the balance. Jacques Chirac, the friendliest and most ineffective French president in memory,
spoke endlessly about solidarity but never did a thing about it. Sarkozy has a mandate: 32% of France voted for him; by comparison, only 15% of the U.S. voted for Clinton in ’92. His ideas might well fail but he’s earned the right to try them out. His success on integration will be the ultimate test.
Who is Nicolas Sarkozy?
Unlike Chirac, Sarko is a true man of the right. Being France, of course, that still puts his agenda, though not necessarily his character, to the left of Kucinich. But he faces a French left that, unlike its American version,
lost the battles but won the war. France typically elects rightwing presidents to implement leftwing policies.
The consummate pragmatist, Sarko will not fight his battles on ideological grounds. In anticipation of the social unrest that is sure to greet his reform of labor laws, he intends to use his (likely) new majority in parliament
to pass a minimum service public transportation law to dull the effect of transit strikes. Sarko is the shrewdest French politician of his generation: a coopting master.
Commentators who wrongly see significance in his mixed Hungarian/Greek/Jewish background seem unaware that France is the most ethnically mixed country in Europe: 20% of the population has a foreign parent or grandparent; and the density of foreign-born, the highest in Europe, is similar to that of the United States.
In that regard, Sarko is the textbook French success story. What is highly significant, however, is that
he did not graduate from ENA, the breeding ground of French politicians. This gives him the independent streak to, say, staff half of his cabinet with women, as is his stated intention, without thinking twice about it.
What foreign policy?
His likely selection of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister is a master stroke. The highly popular founder of the Nobel-prize winning Doctors Without Borders is a former Communist who worked for Mitterrand, campaigned for Ségolène Royal, and, as the chief advocate of the wooly concept of “droit d’ingérence” (right of humanitarian intervention), played Bush’s useful idiot in the run-up to the Iraq war. His selection is a canny way to please, annoy, and confuse everyone all at once.
French foreign policy is framed within a “Gaullist consensus” that has been remarkably consistent over the years. On the European front, Germany will remain France’s only indispensable partner. Merkel’s first foreign trip was to the Elysée Palace. Sarkozy returned the favor on Inauguration Day. London’s hopes for a weakening of the Paris-Berlin axis will once again be frustrated. The axis will put the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s EU admission, to the chagrin of Britain and the U.S. This will be made all the easier by troublesome new members like Poland, who offer daily reminders to the growing legions of Eurosceptics that the EU is already too big and the last thing it needs is the addition of an impoverished Muslim nation that would soon be its largest member. Sarko and Brown will lower Merkel’s ambition for a new European constitution and they’ll all agree on a referendum-free slimline treaty. True to his faith in industrial policy (which seems to have escaped the eagle eyes of his neoliberal admirers stateside), Sarko will strong-arm the European Central Bank into putting downward pressure on the Euro. He will fail.
Sarkozy’s pious words about changing France’s (shameful) neocolonial position in sub-Saharan Africa will come to naught. France’s chasse guardée will remain well guarded. His proposed Mediterranean union is a different story. France is the strongest power in the Mediterranean rim and it’s a mystery why no Gaullist leader had yet thought of making a move in that direction. Actually, Chirac did: he signed on to the 1995 EU Barcelona Initiative, but the EU’s focus on eastward expansion and the NAFTA-esque imbalances of the project led it to its current vegetative state. Except for Turkey, which will regard Sarko’s Mediterranean initiative as yet another “nail in the coffin” (see above), the reaction in the region will be globally positive. Even Israel might take a shine to it. The U.S. would be wise to support it, but it’s unclear it will.
Regarding Russia, Sarko will follow Merkel’s lead in being firm with Moscow but opposed to an aggressive stand by the U.S. The neocons’ push for a new cold war meant to reverse America’s declining superpower status, which is what the missile shields in Central Europe are all about, will be strongly resisted.
France’s interests in the Levant coincide with America’s. Methods have differed in the past but, after the fiascos of the Iraq and Lebanon wars, they will increasingly converge. Sarko’s take on Syria won’t be as personal as Chirac’s (who never forgave Bashar’s goons for killing his buddy Hariri) but he will work to contain Syrian and Iranian influences. Paris will see eye-to-eye with Washington about Hezbollah and will bark alongside against Iran’s nuclear intentions while opposing military action. The French policy in Iraq? There is none. France has no policy about Dante’s lower rings of hell.
Sarko will initiate a rapprochement with Israel. Given the dysfunctional state of Israeli politics and the 40 years of bad blood between the two countries, he won’t get far. (Hard to believe that France was once Israel’s closest ally.) The contour of French support for a two-state solution around the 1967 lines will not change. Is Sarko pro-Israel? Yes. Does it matter? No. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the world’s third biggest (as well as Europe’s largest Muslim population) but there is no “Jewish vote” and no French AIPAC.
Sarko is likely to have done well with Jewish voters (he got an astounding 90% of he absentee ballots in Israel).
But one should not read too much into it. France’s Arab policy might tilt toward Israel ever so slightly but Sarko will quickly discover that his room for manoeuvre is very limited.
Sarko’s Jewish roots are irrelevant. His strong support among Sephardic Jews reflect his tough stance against the antisemitic violence that flared up during the second Intifada. Many Sephardim live near or in the “hottest” banlieues and suffered the brunt of Muslim anti-Jewish hostility. Although this new form of European antisemitism has since declined, it would be tragic to dismiss it. To his credit, Sarkozy did not. Some perspective might be useful, however. Sharon’s attempts to portray France as an antisemitic country
was silly pandering. The 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Survey asked the question: “Do you have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of Jews?” The answer was “yes” for 86% in France, 77% in the US, and 74% in Britain (the figure for that staunch Israeli ally, Turkey, was 15%). More interesting, among Muslim respondents, the answer was “yes” for 71% in France but only 32% in Britain (even though the UK has far fewer Arab Muslims). It would appear, therefore, that the antisemitic violence is hardly representative of French Muslim society as a whole. It must also be pointed out, if there were any need for it, that the most prevalent form of racism in France is not against Jews but Muslims.
Sarko the American?
Washington will have a hard time getting its head around it, but trans-Atlantic relations have ceased to be Europe’s main focus (except in Britain). U.S.-EU relations will improve but the era of a grand common planned destiny is over. Europe will let America’s dreams of liberal hegemony vanish, the idea having outlived its usefulness. The EU has a bigger economy and a larger population than the U.S. With the end of the Cold War and the Iraq war debacle, America’s military umbrella has lost credibility (at least in Western Europe). NATO got its second wind in Kosovo but is now dying a painful death in Afghanistan. (Sarko wants out.)
France’s priorities outside the EU will be on the global South, while it channels its Asian policy through the EU.
On a personal level, Sarko loves America. But so did Chirac; and, to measure the full irrelevance of personal leanings in this matter, consider that the closest Franco-American relations in the last 50 years took place under the most ideologically anti-American president, François Mitterrand. A President Sarkozy in 2003 would have never joined America’s war in Iraq (pace Kouchner). Sarko will be friendly to the White House and kind to Brown and Merkel’s Atlanticist sensitivities. But smiles don’t make policy.
Good luck, Mr President!
Nicolas Sarkozy once confided to a journalist: “I don’t want to be president. I must be president.” Ruling France might prove a good therapy for Sarko. Let’s hope it is good for the French, too—especially
those of a darker skin tone who’ve been left behind. I am full of doubts about Sarko. But I’ll root for his success
and hope he proves me wrong.