"There are no second acts in American lives," Scott Fitzgerald said. Will there be a second act in Sarkozy's presidency?
The first act ended some time ago. That much seems certain, even if there is disagreement as to exactly when the curtain fell. Was it when his approval rating began to plummet? When Cécilia left him? When he took Carla to Disneyland? When he said "Casse-toi, pauvr'con?" Or when he complained that the coffers were empty?
Who can say? At first he had surprised many people with his sureness of touch. His initial appointments seemed to suggest a man who had contemplated the need to reinvent himself as president, to strive for greater breadth, to reach out to old enemies, to placate and conciliate and compromise while at the same time advancing steadily toward long-meditated goals. But then he lost his grip.
He had come into office with a vision of reform that was not without a certain coherence. Perhaps it ceded too much to the conventional wisdom of certain economists, to OECD orthodoxy, that what ailed the economy was mainly labor-market rigidity and tax fatigue. Perhaps he had taken too much to heart the charts showing that French hours worked per capita stood near the bottom of the European range. Perhaps this econometric fact resonated a little too neatly with UMP ideology, that the 35-hour week and the special retirement regimes were to blame for all of France's woes. And maybe the exhilaration of remedying these supposed ills while finessing the expected opposition distracted attention from the fact that in the meantime the global economic situation had changed dramatically, that the bottom had fallen out of the US economy, that oil prices were beginning a sharp and probably irreversible increase, and that the euro was continuing its inexorable rise against the dollar. These developments--and the expectation of worse to come--might have been expected to elicit new thoughts or a course correction or a policy adjustment on the part of the French president. But nothing happened. He seemed distracted. In love perhaps. Intoxicated with his new power.
And though he did everything he said he would do, as promised--"je dis ce que ferai et je ferai ce que je dis"--his popularity plummeted. He got everything he wanted, but respect eluded him. This made him petulant. He lashed out. He got even. He seemed petty. The old instincts returned. He had always escaped trouble in the past by reinventing his image. Now he would make himself over again. Sobriety would replace energy. He may have married a woman renowned for her légèreté, but she became the instrument of his new sobriety. She curtsied to the queen and calmed the energumen. Yet no one seemed to notice.
He sought refuge in statesmanship: Europe was to have been his second act! But even before he took the stage, there was a mishap in the wings: the Irish voted no. And then in his first foray before the European public, he found himself forced to endure a tongue-lashing by Cohn-Bendit, the ghost of the May '68 he thought he had slain and whose gift for catching the eye of the media he thought he had usurped. So the second act began with humiliation.
Yasmina Reza, the playwright to whom he had played musky male muse, had long ago lost interest in him. She had written a book about him, a book that shared the illusion that Sarkozy harbored about himself: that he had staked his all on his election, that the fascination of the political life lay entirely in its existential risk, on the great gamble that everything one did should be directed toward one end and one end only, to win the supreme magistracy--as if the winning were the end of it, and the wielding of power did not count. The whole first act had been built not on the logic of the world but on the logic of an election: What did he have to do, what did he have to say, what lessons did he have to absorb, in order to win?
Beyond winning none of it really interested him. Really, at bottom, he cared no more about economics than Mitterrand did, but he knew enough and was clever enough to know that others--the serious people, the people with money and power--expected him to pretend to have mastered enough to parrot back what they wanted him to say. But now, anxious that their conventional wisdom is not adequate to the growing peril of the hour, they turn to their creature as if he might have an answer of his own, and all that he can offer them is precisely ... nothing. He does not know what to do next. He is reduced to hoping that something will turn up.
And the French feel, yet again, that they are adrift, as in the final years of Chiraquie. But Chirac was old and worn out, as Jospin said. It was almost to be expected that he would be out of ideas, running on empty, serving out his time. Sarkozy was to have been the new. His accession was to have marked the "passing of the torch," as Kennedy said, to a new generation. That is why so many people turned out to vote. But all the careful staging of this national as well as personal redemption--the jogging, the sweat, the New England summer,, the chest-poking of union stewards in railway yards, the personalization of the presidency--came to naught.
And with frustration have come nastiness and arbitrariness. If he could not be Jack Kennedy, he would become Margaret Thatcher. He gloated that under him the unions had become invisible (but Thatcher had waited longer before crushing the unions, and when she crushed them, she hurled bolts that were real, not rhetorical). He moved against state television. He prosecuted a hapless citizen whose T-shirt had mocked him. He denounced institutions that displeased him: the army, the courts, the media. Yet none of this vituperation seems to have reversed his slide. None of it seems to be making him wildly popular or prompting a cult of idolators. He has denounced the state theater for serving up stale classics that leave him bored to tears, yet his own second act seems thus far to be that stalest of French presidential classics, la fuite en avant into the vapid marches of foreign policy. And so Sarko will celebrate his second Bastille Day with such sultans of the Mediterranean as he has been able to entice to the City of Light while he waits to be upstaged by Obama later this month. Perhaps the Apostle of Change will inspire in him a new thought before it is too late: the thought that perhaps, having won the presidency after a life spent preparing to do just that, he had better do something with it before it turns back into a pumpkin.