Sarkozy’s Rise

The New York Sun, July 2004

IN THE COMING election, an unusually talented politician is likely to unseat his rival, restore international respect for a great nation that in recent years has seen its reputation stained, and rebuild America’s relationship with its European allies.

Fortunately for us all, that election is not the American election and that politician is not Senator Kerry. The election is the November contest for the leadership of France’s Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, and the politician is Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s agile, conservative finance minister.

An inglorious conviction on corruption charges has forced Alain Juppé to resign the leadership of the UMP, opening the slot for the ambitious Mr. Sarkozy, who is now the most popular politician in France.

If President Chirac runs for re-election in 2007 — and there is little doubt he will, if only because his presidential immunity is the only thing keeping him out of prison — Mr.Sarkozy, as head of the UMP, will be perfectly poised to dethrone him.

As ruthless as he is cunning, Mr.Sarkozy, Mr. Chirac’s former protégé, betrayed his mentor by backing Edouard Balladur in the 1995 presidential race. Every night before that election, the satirical puppet show “Les Guignols” depicted Mr. Chirac with a knife in his back.

Elected nonetheless, Mr. Chirac’s popularity continued to fall and Mr. Sarkozy’s continued to rise. Now “Les Guignols” shows Mr. Sarkozy burying Mr. Chirac alive.

Unable to exclude him from politics — Mr. Sarkozy is simply too popular — Mr.Chirac has tried to ruin him by giving him the beastliest jobs in the cabinet. In 2002, with French crime rates soaring, Mr. Sarkozy was made interior minister. He thrilled the French electorate by hiring thousands of police officers and insisting, to the new recruits’ dismay, that they actually enter bad neighborhoods.

He stepped up raids on suspected terrorist groups. He successfully cracked down on drunk and reckless driving, an important achievement in a nation with Third World rates of vehicular homicide. Crime statistics fell in 2003 for the first time in six years.

Mr. Sarkozy reached out to France’s Muslims, heretically suggesting that France adopt affirmative action, but had no fear of confronting them. He proposed expulsion for clerics who incite violence or call for the violation of French law. His most important achievement, however, was the enactment of forceful measures to combat a swelling wave of anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Muslims of North African origin.

Prior to Mr. Sarkozy, the government had reacted tepidly to these outrages, dismissing them as trivial juvenile delinquency. Mr. Sarkozy formed a new police unit to investigate anti-Semitic crime, announcing that perpetrators would receive double sentences.

He banned demonstrators from displaying swastikas or other anti-Semitic symbols. Addressing a Unesco conference in Paris, he affirmed his “categorical refusal to explain the madness of anti-Semitism by the situation in the Middle East, ” and repeated his zero-tolerance policy toward racially motivated attacks.

The phrase was deliberately borrowed from Mayor Giuliani, whose approach to law enforcement he has studied carefully. To Mr. Chirac’s horror, Mr. Sarkozy’s approval ratings continued to rise.

In March, a vexed Mr. Chirac sent Mr. Sarkozy to the finance ministry, a portfolio so gruesome that most politicians would no sooner adopt it than be nibbled to death by mice.

France’s national debt is roughly a trillion Euros. Unemployment remains stubbornly stuck near 10%. Public sector debts are rising, and France’s costly health care and pension programs are widely held to be both devastating to the economy and politically impossible to reform.

The economy is so deeply up the spout, Mr. Chirac must have reasoned, that surely Mr. Sarkozy would at long last drown in it. But it looks as if Mr. Sarkozy, once again, will foil Mr. Chirac, for Mr. Sarkozy, alone among French politicians, seems to have both the deftness and the nerve to do what no other politician in France will do.

His economic package includes targeted tax incentives and sharp cuts in government spending. He has lobbied against the absurd 35-hour workweek and plumped for the privatization of the state-owned power company, Electricité de France, taking on France’s powerful communist-backed unions.

He has already privatized 35% of jet-engine maker Snecma. He insists that the European Central Bank become more transparent and accountable. He proposes to reform health care, no matter who howls. He aims to bring the deficit below 3% of GDP in 2005, and it is quite possible that he will succeed.

His ratings in the polls are still rising. “Chirac doesn’t hate me, ” Mr. Sarkozy has said. “It’s worse. He fears me.” And with good reason.

Mr.Sarkozy’s popularity is evidence that the French have had enough of Chirac and everything he represents — good news for France, good news for America. Mr. Chirac is of the neo-Gaullist school that conflates French nationalism with anti-Americanism.

Mr. Sarkozy adores America and has declared himself proud that critics call him more American than French. Mr. Chirac believes in the primacy of the Franco-German relationship. Mr. Sarkozy is indifferent to Germany, instead favoring alliances with Britain, Spain, and America.

Mr. Chirac opposes a referendum on the European constitution; Mr. Sarkozy insists upon it. Mr. Chirac delivers patronizing lecture to the new European Union member states of Eastern Europe — “badly brought up, ” he called them for their support of America’s policy in Iraq — but Mr. Sarkozy, with his Hungarian background, gets along with them splendidly.

Mr. Sarkozy is said to have opposed Chirac’s stance on the Iraq war. Mr. Chirac courts the Arabs. Mr. Sarkozy prefers the Israelis. Mr. Sarkozy, unlike Mr. Chirac, is not a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA: Almost all of France’s governing elite are énarques, and while there is no doubt that the ENA produces brilliant administrators, it does not seem to be particularly good at producing innovative or visionary politicians.

In 1993, when Mr. Sarkozy was simultaneously the mayor of the French suburb of Neuilly and France’s budget minister, a madman took 21 schoolchildren hostage in Neuilly, threatening to blow them up. While the minister of the interior and the prime minister remained safely in their offices, Mr. Sarkozy drove directly to the school and offered to exchange himself for the hostages. It is rather hard to imagine Mr. Chirac doing the same thing.

Mr. Sarkozy’s career represents the French republican ideal at its best. The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a Jew, Mr. Sarkozy has in one generation come to dominate French political life. His rise proves that the implied contract between the immigrant and the French nation is not a fiction: Immigrants who agree to respect the universalist values of the republic are given full integration and social standing in return.

Mr. Chirac has desperately threatened to fire Mr. Sarkozy from his finance ministry job if he assumes the party leadership in November.With a minister as popular as Mr. Sarkozy, this would be a huge gamble and could easily backfire. Unless Mr. Sarkozy blunders catastrophically, he is going all the way to the top.

Americans who long for a Franco-American rapprochement should be relieved: There is no need to vote for Mr. Kerry.

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