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IS NICOLAS SARKOZY THE FRENCH JOHN McCAIN?

By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 13 MAY 2008 — Who is Nicolas Sarkozy, one year into his five-year term? He is firstly an ambitious politician. Unlike Giulio Andreotti (postwar Italian minister and prime minister, on and off, for 40 years) he does not seek power for power's sake. Unlike Ronald Reagan, his revolution was not against any obvious force of moral decay. He is ambitious per se , and has ambitions for France only by way of consequence. He has something to prove to his peers, as his demonstrative and self-justifying peckishness reminds us every day. There is no mystic force guiding him as with De Gaulle. He only seeks to be remembered by more than half of the population as a historical figure according to an opinion poll.

The Balladur candidacy challenged the Chirac candidacy, and the feeling was vaguely of "Hillary-versus-Obama," with treason thrown in.

Political life is but a poll

The man lives off opinion polls. He long ago understood that election campaigns need to catch the public mood as defined by polls. Polls are many, and of varying weights, so the best way to carry an election is to take positions that elicit the highest approval ratings in the greatest number of aggregate polls on crime, taxes, freedom of enterprise, Alzheimer's , the United States, racial integration, university reform, immigration reduction. This poll-reading is one of the reasons for his victory against Ségolène Royal the Socialist in 2007. It is also what pushed him into the miscalculation of backing Edouard Balladur, Jacques Chirac's erstwhile heir-turned-enemy, for president in 1995. The Balladur candidacy challenged the Chirac candidacy, and the feeling was vaguely of "Hillary-versus-Obama," with treason thrown in. Sarkozy broke with his mentor Jacques Chirac, became one of Balladur's closest allies, and went down on the same ship as Balladur & Co. He did, however, remain nominally in the Gaullist party. There is here a hint of "maverick" John McCain.

Winning over the Gaullists sick of Chirac

This defeat in treason was turned into an inestimable strength - he became the enemy of both Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, the new disciple. The Gaullist party rank and file enjoyed the challenge from within aimed at an unsteady and projectless Jacques Chirac, and what turned out to be an abrasive and haughty prime minister in Dominique de Villepin (who should never have left the Foreign Ministry).

Once the rank and file was won over to Sarkozy around 2003, the man pushed himself back into the government, into the Interior Ministry (Homeland Security) and even a stint as Finance Minister, then back to Interior Minister. It was dizzying stuff. Some commentators aptly called him the Vice-Premier. No senator, this Sarkozy, only a practitioner unafraid of doing unpopular things as long as the rank and file Gaullists liked it. They were (and are) his primary opinion poll targets.

A very recent pro-American

In all this, there is no mention of his pro-Americanism - it is a sideline, a self-proclaimed proclivity which emerged during the 2007 election. (He never lived in the United States. His English is deplorable compared to Chirac's or Villepin's). Until then, he was barely more pro-American than the unfortunate Chirac, who botched his dream of becoming the United States' best friend and greatest ally, a project which failed when the Bush administration tried to dragoon Chirac into accepting the Iraq invasion as a good thing. Chirac predicted intense hostility in France if he went along, so he saved his presidency. The Americans did not give him a chance to bow out graciously, so he lashed back viciously, egged on by Dominique de Villepin who embarked upon a reenactment of De Gaulle of the anti-American phase.

In all this Iraq caper, Sarkozy was deafeningly silent. As Minister in charge of security, he was worried that the "banlieues"-the Arab and Black housing projects and slums ringing Paris, comprising by themselves a city the size of Manhattan-would riot against the war, and that he would have to put them down only to be deposed himself by Villepin. This potential disaster averted, he was still intent on becoming president, so he studied two things: how to seem more modern than an intellectually moribund and divided Socialist Party, and how to win over the National Front vote. This, the polls taught him, were his true tickets to success. This is the lesson John McCain watched in a particularly close way.

Win over the voters of the hard right

Sarkozy figured out why the National Front's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was popular: this ultra-rightist spoke of people's fears, and flattered people of French stock by making them feel superior. This of course was not Sarkozy's cup of tea, he whose father is Hungarian gentry having fled the Reds, and whose maternal grandfather is a Jew from Salonika. So Sarkozy transmuted Le Pen's implicit racism into a similar-sounding but decidedly un-racist dogma, mixing affirmative action ideas with color-blind patriotism and a stance against illegal and excessive immigration from Africa.

Here again there is a similarity with ideas in the U.S. Republican sphere. Immigration is the most sensitive question, the polls show it, and Sarkozy announced his project for creating a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity during the campaign. And in a flash, Le Pen lost half a million votes. The voters are not truly attracted to Le Pen's watered-down fascism, and Sarkozy's stroke of genius was in generating his own brand of non-racialistic national pride. This genius will surely show up in the Republican thinking. After all, McCain himself came to see Sarkozy last year, their campaign strategists talked. McCain even dropped in this winter, as more of a courtesy call on his way back from Iraq. But the two men seem to like meeting.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy greets U.S. Republican Presidential
candidate, Senator John McCain at Elysee Palace, Paris, 21 March 2008
www.elysee.fr | Tous droits réservés

Sarkozy's perpetual campaign

In his first year, Sarkozy has continued to run affairs as if still campaigning. The fact that commentators called him "Sarkozy l'Américain" only means he is unlike his predecessors, and is watching the polls, and always campaigning. He did silly things: flash press junkets, moralistic announcements, bulimic interviews, pressing of the flesh, walking up to strikers. He did useful things: fixing the European Union's constitutional deadlock (a tour de force ), imposing bold ecological legislation, sending more troops to Afghanistan . He did neutral things: reassuring African satraps that France was still business as usual. Some of this gave him momentum to keep afloat in the polls for four months.

Then he began to lack results, the Parliament began to wake up, the limits of the exercise became clear, and the polls showed him slipping under 50% approval ratings (he now floats between 30 and 40%). His calls to less laziness sounded strange, even as he seemed not to be saving a single euro on any spending cutbacks for his entourage, and indeed seemed to be basking in dubious opulence with his billionaire new friends. And so in the nationwide municipal elections in March, the Gaullists lost nearly everywhere.

What went wrong? He must have realized that full-time campaigning is bad. The electorate desires stability, a little amnesia, and less wife-changing of a suspiciously monarchical type. To his credit, he divorced straight, for the second time, and married his girlfriend (something his diplomatic and protocol people begged him to do so as not to insult the socially prude Muslim and Eastern leaders). But he talked too much. His former spokesman David Martinon talked too much, giving weekly press briefings expressly as in the White House. (Martinon, one notes, has now been shipped off as Consul General of New York, where he can command local French cultural diplomacy - and watch and report back on McCain's campaign.) Life for Sarkozy is no longer a perpetual campaign. It does not pay politically, but that's all he knows how to do.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Madame Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Can McCain Reproduce the French Formula?

"Will McCain succeed like I did? And, if so, so what?" This could well be the question Sarkozy asks himself. The French diplomatic corps is monitoring the American primaries so closely I wonder they do not set up a News Agency. I witnessed some French diplomats, busily attending campaign rallies and TV debates, telling the campaign manager for McCain in California that "our president wants to know who he will be dealing with." I say he wants to know if the Sarkozy formula is working for McCain. Unfortunately, the French President has not fully realized that being president means governing, administering, acting sometimes in the wings. The elections are over. Polls are useless. Watching the American election is, too.

Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs and cultural diplomacy. He has worked for Radio France Internationale, Courrier International, and Radio Classique (news section), and now works for BFM TV. He last wrote on Afghan Treasures in Paris: Saved from the Taliban, But Not Quite Ready for America for Culturekiosque.com .

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