Sarko’s Interior Monologue

New York Sun, March 2007

AMERICANS WITH A friendly disposition toward France have many reasons to hope for Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in the presidential elections in April. The interior minister and leader of the Union for a Popular Movement is the most dynamic and exciting politician France has produced in years. He is a loyal admirer of America, which he calls “the greatest democracy in the world.” He has promised to overhaul the sclerotic French social welfare state and reform France’s second-rate educational system. Unlike his chief rival, the pretty airhead Ségolène Royal, he is not a tired socialist who declares money the “lifelong enemy.”

Mr. Sarkozy is the only politician in the race forthrightly to address the challenge of integrating France’s Muslim minority and to propose serious policies to redress its estrangement — policies that go beyond firehosing more taxpayer money into French ghettos. He correctly deplores a contemporary French culture that discourages initiative, punishes merit, and remunerates sloth more than work. He calls for lower taxes, more flexible labor laws, the partial deregulation of the French economy, and the streamlining of its bureaucracy. He affirms his solidarity with Israel and rules out no options in countering Iranian nuclear ambitions — as opposed to the current Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy who recently claimed Iran is a “force for stability” in the Middle East.

Mr. Sarkozy takes a tough line on crime, but he is by no means inhuman (as he is often portrayed). As Interior Minister, for example, he ended the practice of “double punishment” — the policy of deporting foreign criminals at the end of their jail terms — on the grounds that most of those deported had families in France. It did no one any good, he argued, to make children fatherless.

All this is to the good. With the publication of his autobiography and political manifesto, Testimony, (Pantheon, 272 pages, $24.95), another reason to hope for his victory becomes evident: If he wins, he will be too busy fixing France to write another ridiculous book like this.

Don’t get me wrong: It should be obvious that I am a fan of Mr. Sarkozy. But just as certain writers should not become politicians, certain politicians should not become writers. Testimony, adapted for an American audience, has been shortened from the French version. That it was both much longer in the original and a summer best-seller — a big favorite at the beaches, apparently — can only be seen as evidence of the masochism of the French reading public.

Testimony is a disorganized hybrid of ill-matched styles, none of them attractive. It is in part a long political infomercial interleafed with the sound bites of a stump speech: “To build and to love. This could be a pledge. For me, it’s my life.” It is a general, bulldoggish attack on political enemies and allies alike: “These plotters and schemers in their smokefilled rooms have been poisoning politics for too long. They revel in plots. They live off the lowest human feelings.” (He is speaking here of members of his own party.) There are assertions of the perfectly obvious: “To build something you need to take action, but only after taking time to reflect. You’ve got to act, but according to a plan.” Then there is the expression of humorless vanity mingled with mawkishness: “It’s true. I love life. I love it so much that I’ve always wanted to live it in the full, seizing every moment … I believe in will and determination. I don’t resign myself to failure. I love tenacity. I rarely if ever give up. I believe that everything is earned, and that effort always pays off. These are my values. This is what I’m made of.”

For a man of such tenacity, Mr. Sarkozy indulges in a surprising helping of self-pity. In a chapter discussing the Clearstream Affair — an international banking scandal in which every French politician was seen simultaneously lodging an ice pick in the next one’s back, calling to mind an Escher staircase or a Möbius strip — Mr. Sarkozy without irony celebrates his own stoicism, all the while disclosing the opposite quality: “I’m not naïve and I know how tough public life can be. I know that all sorts of dirty tricks exist. I can even accept that my adversaries, or even my ‘friends,’ take advantage of my troubles. This has been done with no sense of decency or limits on my private life. I could do without this, but that’s the way it is, and there’s no sense in complaining.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s complaints are justified, but his hysterical tone, joined with his insistence upon his own superior dignity, combine to suggest that somehow the ghost of Sophie Portnoy has commandeered his pen.

Similarly, however welcome his admiration of American political institutions, there is one American political tradition he could have done without — the airing of dirty marital laundry. “Cécilia,” he writes of the woman who famously cuckolded him with a prominent advertising executive, ” … is part of me. Whatever challenges we have faced as a couple, not a day has gone by that we didn’t talk. Really! We didn’t want to betray anyone, but we’re incapable of being apart. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but it’s impossible … I could never have imagined going though something like this. I never could have imagined being so devastated.”

If you are willing to soldier on through this melodramatic dreck, there are many good ideas for France to be found between the clichés. His proposals to redistribute power away from the president are interesting, and given that he is poised to become president, unexpected. His diagnoses of the ailments of contemporary France are perfectly accurate, and if he has been termed a right-wing radical for describing these ailments so frankly, it is only because his opponents — and indeed his allies — trend so radically to the left. (By American standards, Mr. Sarkozy would be considered a center-left politician.) It would be a fine thing were Mr. Sarkozy allowed to put his good ideas into action, both for France and for America. In no way do I want to diminish this. I mean only to suggest that French political life would be better served — and French literature none the poorer — were Mr. Sarkozy to stick to politics and thus to his strengths.

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