At Large

Hot French Summer

Nicolas Sarkozy is widely despised -- a sure sign he’s doing fine job.

By 9.2.08

PARIS -- President Nicolas Sarkozy is widely despised in France, and this contempt extends from left to right (to the degree these categories still exist). To me that is a good sign. The only time a politician should have high ratings is on the day voters go to the polls. The rest of the time, the more he is despised the better he is doing his job.

The conventional contempt expressed for this man includes resentment of his own scarcely disguised contempt for the ordinary conventions expected of politicians and statesmen. Here we see something akin to the dislike many Washingtonians -- I mean the official and para-official classes of permanent high-level boondogglers and those who swarm around them for a living -- felt for the loutish behavior of the people around Jimmy Carter: the bluejeans, the cowboy boots, the provocative red-neckism.

The difference of course is that with those Georgians, the poor manners went hand in hand with an insufferable sanctimony that was itself discredited by the shallow public policies the Carter administration proposed. Sarkozy and his ministers are not sanctimonious, though the president himself has been reported to be impolite, for instance by responding to a heckler with an obscenity and by checking his text messages while in audience with Pope Benedict. (Sarkozy, though divorced, remains a Catholic.) However, Sarkozy's people are not holier-than-thou. They call attention to themselves, in the image of the president, by behaving like French people of their generation, for instance taking unwed motherhood in stride. But they are proposing reforms that are driven by liberal, as we would say conservative, principles: more freedom to get and do whatever you want, and tell the state to get lost.

This may or may not work in France. It may not work due to the mysteries of French nature, or perhaps due to the insufficient energy the Sarkozists are putting into it or the means they are offering the institutions in need of reform, or even for other reasons. However, in the first year and a half of this five-year (down from the traditional seven, arguably a mistake) term, the Sarkozists have sought to shake things up.

ON THE INTERNATIONAL SCENE, the question that Americans often ask is this: When is Europe, the entity, going to "pull its weight"? This question has been posed at least since 1953-54, when the U.S. quietly promoted the central political issue of the day, which was West German rearmament. This would have been possible by means of the European Defense Community, in practice a French-German army, the strategic counterpart to the newly founded European Coal and Steel Community, ancestor of today's EU. However, the Communists and the Gaullists opposed the creation of the EDC, and as a result Germany rearmed under NATO command.

It is impossible to say if "Europe" would have "pulled its own weight" more, differently, or the same as it did anyway over the next half century. What is certain is that "Europe" did not fly any airborne troops to defend little Georgia, any more than NATO or anyone else sent arms and men to little Hungary many years ago. However, Sarkozy, seeing that France has its turn this summer at the rotating EU presidency, flew to Moscow, thence to Tbilisi, and brokered a cease-fire. Maybe the Russians already had what they wanted. Maybe, though, they would have rolled on to Tbilisi and done what they did, when they were known as Soviets, in Budapest, 52 years ago, not to mention what they have done elsewhere in the Caucasus more lately.

The Russians chose the moment to attack Georgia very well. Say what you will about their reputation for brutality, they were subtle in their timing. They let the Georgian leadership accumulate the provocations -- which I for one am willing to believe included some unnecessary clumsiness with regard to the pro-Russian Ossetians -- and advertise their pro-Occidentalism. They waited for the most openly pro-American West European leader -- Nicolas Sarkozy -- to take over the revolving European Union presidency. They let the EU member states, heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, display the full range of their energy-policy disarray. And of course they let the Olympic Games begin, not only in order to have a handy distraction, but to underscore that the West can talk a big talk, but. Had there not been a lot of hype about China's support for a cruel regime in Khartoum? Had there not been a lot of huffing and puffing about what would happen if they relented not in their persecution of poor little Tibet? Eh? I am told -- it may be apocryphal -- a Russian foreign ministry official asked a French diplomat in Moscow, who was lodging a protest when the city of Gori was being pounded into the Caucasian dust, what his country did when the same thing happened in 1923. And if he did not care to remember, then why should the Russians expect the "West" to do anything now?

To us, they simply said, Remember what you did to Grenada? Cuba? Nicaragua? Forget about moral asymmetry. This is the national interest.

IN ANY EVENT, Sarkozy flew to Moscow, and thence to Tbilisi. Empty symbolism? Heads of state on diplomatic missions have been known to look out the window and see their transports' engines exploding. The real problem, to his critics, is that he seems to want to go into harm's way and take this once-martial nation with him. Why should we die for Georgia? Why die for Afghanistan?

As their grandparents and great-grandparents said, Why die for Danzig?

Quite. Perhaps the question is a fair one. But if so, then surely you have to grant those who would say "Because, its safety is also ours..." a right to be heard. You sometimes get the impression that Sarkozy's opponents -- left and right both -- want to head him off with something that is basically not an argument at all: It's the Americans' problem.

And who knows, they may be right. Whether, for better or worse, Nicolas Sarkozy can change this mind-set remains to be seen, but he seems at the present determined to go against it and damn the polls. The Socialist Party, which represents about 20 percent of the electorate, and the assorted "rest of the left" and the extreme isolationist right, which between them represent 10 percent, are staking out "anti-war" positions, calling for the withdrawal of French forces (some three thousand men) in Afghanistan. The president's UMP party is disciplined though not necessarily solid on this issue, and Sarkozy has let it be known (another example, say his critics, of his extreme vulgarity) that a second term might interest him less than cashing in.

(Correction: The patron at my neighborhood bistrot, mentioned in an earlier dispatch, reminds me that the correct spelling is Perigourdine, with a d, Apologies and again, this is not, repeat not, a placement ad for this excellent little place located on the rue des Ecoles in the 5th.)

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.