Letter From Paris

Sarkozy’s Left Turn

By From the October 2009 issue

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You probably remember: he was so unabashedly pro-American, he so admired our work ethic and free market capitalism, not to mention popular culture, that the French themselves called him Sarko l’Américain. When his Socialist political opponents sneered that Nicolas Sarkozy was “an American neoconservative with a French passport,” he proudly made the tag his own. He vacationed in New England. And when he jogged, that black T-shirt said NYPD.

During his campaign he vowed to break with what he called the old, outmoded behavior of France and put into practice ideas he had learned from studying the U.S. With him as president, by golly, the French were going to work harder and longer, pay lower taxes, and enjoy less bureaucracy and state intervention in their lives. And he was going to be our friend. One of his first state visits abroad was to Washington in November 2007, where he told the guests at a formal White House dinner, “I want to win back America’s heart.”

But eventually age-old Gallic reality began to set in. Turns out the French, to no one’s surprise but his, didn’t really want that much change, whether based on his peculiar conception of American values or not. They found his flashy nouveau riche manner just a tad tacky, including a quickie divorce and whirl-wind courtship of Carla Bruni, a pop singer and fixture of the limousine-liberal showbiz set. They winced at his fancy vacations on wealthy friends’ yachts and his free-spending ways with taxpayer money, things like $1,000 a day for fresh flowers at his official residence and $2 million for private opinion polls on his popularity.

His political posturing and strong-arm ways with the National Assembly prompted a manifesto by a number of key public figures denouncing what they saw as a dangerous drift toward monarchy. As for working more to earn more, one of his main U.S.-derived campaign themes, that never got traction in a country with unemployment nearing 10 percent. His vertiginous fall from grace, with poll numbers dropping from the 60s to the 30s, was unprecedented in the Fifth Republic.

His very political survival in the balance, Sarkozy had to change the way he strutted his stuff. Coached by his advisers as well as the worldly-wise Carla, he began a thorough makeover from personal style to political posture. This lover of Sylvester Stallone action movies and French bedroom farces began screening films by Federico Fellini and Elia Kazan. In interviews, this often crude politician not known for his literary tastes started casually dropping references to heavyweight authors from Louis-Ferdinand Céline to Jean-Paul Sartre. Luxury-loving party animal, moi? “Actually, my wife and I never go out in the evening, we never go to dinner parties, I don’t drink,” he allowed to a bemused media.

With Carla’s liberal instincts as a pocket guide to the French gauche and a pol’s talent for co-opting trendy issues, Sarkozy took a left turn. He had promised to be “the buying power president” and make France the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Now he favors something he calls the politics of civilization: squishy green, less market-driven. He discovered the political value of eco-awareness; Carla, he casually let it be known, refuses to wear fur. Brigitte (And God Created Woman) Bardot, a noisy animal rights activist since she quit acting and put on some clothes, was so inspired by the New Sarkozy that she asked if he would please get bullfights banned.

No action yet on that. But ecology now is one of his top priorities. When in New York recently for a concert honoring Nelson Mandela (Carla sang!), Sarkozy lunched with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to discuss subjects of mutual liberal concern like climate change and, ominously, “reforming global governance.” Afterward he made a clarion call for a worldwide environmental organization to deal with climate change. No matter that the world already has had one too many international environmental organizations since 1972, the UN Environment Program famous for the feckless Kyoto Protocol. From there it was only a step to naming a committee to advise him on how to introduce a carbon tax in France, following the lead of such social democratic exemplars as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. The committee, headed by Michel Rocard, a former Socialist prime minister and longtime pillar of the French Left, came up with a plan of truly Rube Goldbergian complexity that would cost the average French household $420 a year in new taxes.

Sarkozy’s turn left has become increasingly strident since the recession and accompanying backlash in some quarters made it politically profitable to attack capitalism. The man once hailed as a Gallic Margaret Thatcher, the candidate who ran as a free marketeer, has morphed into a staunch dirigiste and state interventionist hostile to unfettered free enterprise. Today he crusades for a “re-founding of global capitalism,” a system he appears to equate with predatory foreign villains such as private equity and hedge funds, “aggressive gangs of speculators” whose goal is buying up companies, laying off workers, and pocketing ill-gotten profits. As part of this populist campaign, Sarkozy recently called in the heads of France’s top banks and ordered them to rein in executive bonuses or lose government business. In a scene reminiscent of Soviet-style show trials, he then paraded them before TV cameras to say how happy they were to comply.

Forty years ago Charles de Gaulle, seeking ways to stick his thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye, railed against the dollar-based international monetary system and insisted that “capitalism doesn’t offer a satisfactory solution.” Today his political heir Nicolas Sarkozy is pursuing the same tiresome French dream of undermining American supremacy by attacking both the dollar and the free enterprise model. He wants to replace the former with some vague multinational currency, the latter with the antique, sclerotic French model of centralized state control of the economy, one that goes back more than 300 years to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, chief financier of Louis XIV.

It was at the G8 meeting in Italy that Sarkozy, suddenly siding incongruously with China and a group of emerging nations, launched his most overt attack on the dollar. “We’ve still got the Bretton Woods system of 1945,” he lamented. It was time to put an end to the outdated postwar system that created American political and economic predominance. “Frankly,” he said, “60 years later we’ve got to ask: shouldn’t a politically multi-polar world correspond to an economically multi-currency world?”

His idea, repeated at regular intervals, is to dilute the dollar’s role by enlarging the mandate of the International Monetary Fund, which just happens to be headed by the French Socialist lady-killer Dominique Strauss-Kahn, lately notorious for pawing his feminine colleagues. The IMF would then manage, with the usual deft expertise of a committee of international functionaries, a fanciful hodgepodge of currencies including the dollar, euro, yen, and those of unspecified emerging-market countries.

All this, in Sarkozy’s view, requires some form of global economic governance. Besides a bigger role for the IMF, he would like to see the World Bank and the UN’s International Labour Organization empowered to regulate international finance and curb free market competition. And while they are at it, why stop at finance? In a joint text he published with Brazil’s leftist president Lula da Silva, founder of that country’s Workers’ Party, Sarkozy called for worldwide governance “in many areas, from the economy to security, from energy to the environment.” This would give globalization the social dimension demanded by “workers facing the economic storm [who are] asking for more justice and greater security.” Workers of the world, unite!

The swaggering, diminutive Frenchman some have unkindly taken to calling Sarkopoleon wants to use Europe as the launch pad for his quixotic, Bonapartist quest for world government. After visibly relishing his activist six-month stint as revolving president of the European Union last year—which he relinquished with obvious reluctance and some bad grace—he now hopes to put together a council of euro zone government leaders with a permanent chairman (guess who). This international economic supervision that Paris has long sought could then be steered toward French-style public-private capitalism and protectionism. Its first move would be to set up, as France has, national sovereign wealth funds to invest in weak European companies threatened by foreign takeover. “There is no reason,” he says, “why we shouldn’t do what the Chinese and Russians do.” At least we now know which countries have replaced America as his governmental ideal.

Within France itself policymakers in Sarkozy’s own cabinet and UMP party are struggling to keep up with the impulsive, unpredictable twists and turns of Sarkozisme. Some of his European counterparts, not least Germany’s Angela Merkel, are alarmed or merely exasperated by such antics. Other Europeans, like the Swiss commentator Jacques Pilet, see him as quite possibly power mad. But we Americans can’t say he didn’t give us fair warning. “If I was in love with the American model,” he told us in his book Testimony, “I’d go and live there. This is not the case.”

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.