Nicolas Sarkozy is spending his first summer vacation as president of France in the United States. A very unusual move - and a clear rejection of his country’s anti-American biases.
Sarkozy came back to France for one day, on August 10, to attend the funeral of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former archbishop of Paris and a leading Catholic personality in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He then returned to America. A private meeting with president George W. Bush was scheduled on August 11.
Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on May 6, in a highly polarized ballot. The turnout was 85 % (against a bit less than 80 % in 1995 and 2002). He got 53 %, six points ahead of Ségolène Royal’s 47 % - a clear and undisputable majority. One month later, his party (the Union for a Majority in Progress, or UMP) and its close partner, the small New Centre party (NC) won an absolute majority at the National Assembly, with 356 seats out of 577, but not a two thirds majority of 400 or 450 seats, as pollsters had a bit hastily predicted he would.
The new president is quite popular. At 52, he is much younger than his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who was 60 upon his first election in 1995 and stepped out at 75, and indeed than most other French political leaders. He is not an enarch or senior civil servant, as most presidents, prime ministers and ministers have been since 1958, but a lawyer. He knows how to speak in a friendly, no-nonsense, down to the facts, way that appeals to many. He has been able to attract or woe many high profile personalities from the Left : including the former socialist Health minister Bernard Kouchner, now his foreign minister, and the former socialist Economy minister (and presidential contender) Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whom he has groomed as Europe’s candidate to the IMF chairmanship.
He has made good use of some of his weaknesses as well. The son of divorcees, he himself divorced his first wife, the heiress of a Corsican clan, to marry Cecilia, a divorcee ; and subsequently managed to overcome a domestic crisis with her. Other political leaders may have attempted to cover up such details. Indeed, the socialist president François Mitterrand (1981-1995) kept two wifes on public money - his legal spouse Danielle Mitterrand, and his secret concubine Anne Pingeot, the mother of his daughter Mazarine Pingeot -, instead of divorcing the former in order to marry the latter. Sarkozy, however, has taken a refreshingly candid attitude in this respect. The day he was installed as president, he walked to the Elysée Palace with his free-minded wife and the various children he is in charge of : the offspring of both his marriages and his wife’s children by her first husband, the TV anchor Jacques Martin. It won him the sympathy of the many French men and women who are into similar familial arrangements, and the respect of an even larger share of the public.
Another very special point about Sarkozy is that both he and Cecilia are not ethnically French. Sarkozy’s father is a Christian Hungarian who fled the Red Army in 1944 to Nazi Germany, of all places, lived in France for a while and then moved to the United States. His motherly grandfather, Dr Mallah, who actually raised him after his parents divorce, was a Sefardi Jew from Salonica. Cecilia is the daughter of a Jewish fur trader from Rumania and a Catholic Spanish woman.
Such pedigrees might have been very harmful in political terms a few years ago. Since this is 2007, however, they have helped Sarkozy a great deal. Throughout the presidential campaign, Sarkozy, the son and grandson of immigrants, and the husband of another person of alien stock, was in the unique position to steadfastly oppose illegal immigration without being accused of racism : it enabled him to cut by one half Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rightwing vote. Once elected, he was equally at ease to bring many legal immigrants from the Maghreb or Black Africa, and women at that, into the cabinet : Rachida Dati, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, minister of Justice ; the Senegalese-born Rama Yade, deputy foreign minister ; or the Algerian-born Fadela Amara, minister of Urban Affairs.
Finally, Sarkozy has achieved almost instantly a reputation of being hyperactive and pragmatic. He clearly acts as an American president, in charge of the day to day government issues, rather as a semimonarchical and distant French president. Again, this is seen as a plus by most French citizens – so far. He also does his best to appear as a 21st century democratic leader, in the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian style. Whereas previous French administrations, either Right of Left, passed laws and then entered into talks with angry unions or lobbies, he has insisted for preleminary talks of all kinds. He even saw to it to brief every political party about some of his initatives in foreign matters.
The question is : will Sarkozy pass the real tests ? Will he preside over the required in-depth changes, or just be a good spin doctor ? Is he the French Ronald Reagan, or the French Margaret Thatcher, as many of his supporters have figured out he was, or just the French Tony Blair ?
It is too early to pass a judgement or even speculate about that. There were expectations of radical reforms being passed over the first hundred days of the new administration. Instead, Sarkozy has been pushing very limited domestic adjustments, on matters like education, taxes, the national health system, the working hours. His calculation is apparently that it will be easier to go ahead with more reforms once some reforms are not just passed as laws at the National Assembly but put into effect without much opposition from the unions. Maybe he is right.
In foreign matters, he garnered several successes in less than three months. One, his initiative for a new European governance, two years after the popular rejection of the so-called European Constitution both in France and the Netherlands, is genuine and impressive. A second success, the release of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor held in Libya for eight years, has been fraught with criticism and suspicion. According to some critics, his special envoy to Libya – who happened to be his wife, Cecilia – stole the show from an European Union diplomatic team that had been working about the issue for months. According to other critics, the six State prisoners have been traded for a far-reaching arms and technology contract that will provide dictator Muammar Kadhafi with a new strategic edge in the Mediterreanean.
Sarkozy’s sympathy for the United States and Israel is genuine. It makes a big difference with almost all his predecessors. But he is no French John Howard either. He will certainly not harm American or Israeli interests on purpose. But he may believe that some « New Middle East » is in the making after all, and that the French should gently take part in it. Moreover, he may think that zero sum strategies never work out, and that bad enemies can be turned into partners. And the Kadhafi deal may define a precedent for Hizbullah in Lebanon (which Kouchner invited to an all-Lebanese political conference in Paris), Hamas in Gaza, or even Iran. Was this option to be discussed with Bush ? Quite likely.
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