Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Two Sarkozys

I sense--from the polls, from yesterday's "defend the Republic" petition, from various comments posted to the blog--that anti-Sarko sentiment has taken an ominous turn. The president seems to be in danger of losing not just his mandate but his legitimacy.

My comments, I suspect, are going to put me out of phase with many of my readers. Perhaps I have been trying too hard to maintain a certain objectivity. But I think the criticism has risen much too quickly to this crescendo and has become quite disconnected from political realities, veering into yet another eruption of malaise, or even national panic, tied to a mysterious and recurrent French fear of loss, whether of identity, well-being, or standing in the world. The problem is not Sarkozy; it is rather le mal français that put Sarkozy into power in the first place.

I think there are two Sarkozys. There is first of all the Sarkozy who moved with impressive speed to implement the all-in-all rather modest and conventional social and economic program on which he had run. He reduced taxes--but really, when all is said and done, by a fairly modest amount. He reformed the special retirement regimes, which French governments of the right and left have been trying to do since 1992--but we still don't know the precise nature of the reform, because the details are being worked out in negotiations. He exhorted the social partners to renegotiate, under threat of government action, the details of labor contracts--but the CDD has not been abolished, there is no single contract, restrictions on dismissals have been relaxed but not eliminated, etc. He revamped and merged the unemployment and employment agencies. He tightened immigration laws and cracked down, as other governments have done, on illegal immigrants; there have been bavures, but these are not unique to Sarkozy. He made some symbolic overtures of friendship to the United States. He negotiated the release of the prisoners held in Libya. He gave greater autonomy to universities and modestly increased their budgets. He abolished certain price restrictions on large retailers.

Thus there were a lot of minor reforms, but nothing revolutionary. Much of this program had hovered on the horizon for years, if not decades. Many aspects of it were common to the Left and the Right, in one guise or another. The diagnosis of France's difficulties that gave this program its coherence was shared by both sides. Fundamentally, it comes down to this: in order to sustain the French welfare state, to which French of all political persuasions are attached, the French need to extend their working lives to take account of increased longevity, and in order to keep their budget deficits and debts within limits agreed with their European partners and reduce unemployment, it might be helpful to increase annual hours worked per capita by, say, ten percent. Sarkozy thought detaxing overtime and offering other incentives to employers might achieve this goal; Royal spoke of "negotiating" modifications to the 35-hour week. But there was no fundamental disagreement. In short, Sarkozy was elected on a modest center-right platform; he has implemented that platform; and the results, which can be expected not to be very dramatic if they come, have been slow to emerge and perhaps overwhelmed by a global economic downturn whose magnitude is only beginning to be appreciated by economists, the US Federal Reserve, the ECB, and the IMF: Sarkozy is not alone in being slow to adjust.

So much for the first Sarkozy, who might be expected to elicit a certain disappointment but not massive disavowal. But what about the second Sarkozy? What accounts for the sense, as commenter "aps" put it, that "we may be in danger of losing the values of the Republic." Well, there are first of all the vicissitudes of his private life: the divorce, the remarriage, the choice of mate. Sarkozy said, in Yasmina Reza's earshot, that "les hommes politiques, ce sont des bêtes sexuelles." The French used to smile at what they dismissively referred to as "American puritanism" in this regard. If Giscard wanted to take a spin around Paris at 4AM with a woman to whom he wasn't married, the sophisticated smiled; if Mitterrand wanted a second family, well, who didn't? (Have you seen the Louis Kahn film?) But to marry a notorious femme fatale and parade her before the cameras was too much. It was vulgar, as were the watches and the jets and the yachts and the friends who had too much and flaunted it at Fouquet's.

But this is just--literally--fodder for the tabloids (or for "respectable" media falling all over themselves to become tabloids). What really matters is something else. It has to do with the way Sarkozy has transformed the other side of himself, the side that the Left tried to demonize in the campaign. Because the modest center-right platform was never enough. In order to get elected, Sarkozy had to make himself something more than just another vehicle for the standard-issue welfare-state reforms. So he played with fire. He has played with fire for years. He emphasized loss of security. He championed the victims of crime and hinted at medieval methods for dealing with criminals. And he provoked confrontation with immigrants. As he said himself, he needed the votes of Le Pen supporters to win, and he got them. Then he boasted, with some justice, of having destroyed the FN.

But once in power, this other Sarkozy conceived a greater ambition. No longer would he avail himself of the age-old strategy of divide-and-conquer. He was now president of "all the French." But he was also a shrewd enough politician to realize that he still needed to draw support from a base wider than the small group who stood behind his center-right program of social and economic reforms. He needed something big, something splashy, something on the order of a "politics of civilization." He needed a new idea of the Republic, a republic based not on the tired clash of "enlightened" secularism and "benighted" religiosity. People, he told himself, as other conservatives from de Maistre to Barrès to Maurras (as well as liberal communitarians such as the Michaels Sandel and Walzer) have told themselves, are not abstract citizens but members of communities. They are committed not only to changes here and now but to "transcendent" beliefs. So instead of alternately attacking and enticing this or that "community" within the nation, as he had done with Muslims--stop slaughtering sheep in your bathtubs and we'll build you mosques, he had said, gaining notoriety for both statements--now he had something for every community. The "president of all the French" had Holocaust memory for the Jews (but no apologies for the past); he had nuclear reactors for Arabs and an invitation to Qaddafi to pitch his tent in Paris (but he would still deal with "loafers" in the suburbs who failed to get up early); he gave Catholics credit for European civilization (but Masons should know that he stood with them as well); he offered fishermen cheap fuel and promised higher quotas than the EU allowed (but at the same time, "France is back in Europe"). And so on.

To my American eyes, all of this looks depressingly familiar. It is nothing less (but nothing more--nothing more ominous, please, French republicans, rest assured) than pandering to one constituency after another. And pandering to one group sometimes means giving offense to another: indeed, sometimes what a constituency wants most is the smiting of its neighbors. Yes, it's a change. The French language isn't used to this sort of strain. It prefers abstract (and often vacuous) eulogies to l'esprit républicain. But France has always been a highly variegated nation despite the rhetoric of la République une et indivisible. This is a pious wish, not a reality. Sarkozy, in his blundering way, has tried to rise above his electioneering flirtation with xenophobes and racists. He is now playing for bigger game. Vaguely he senses that the old republican rhetoric is out of whack with the realities of contemporary France, and he is right. But in his clumsy groping for a new rhetoric of unity above diversity, he has struck nerves. That is the meaning of the "defense of the Republic" petition. Yet its uncritical embrace frankly gives me the willies. People who were only yesterday (literally) denouncing Ségolène Royal for her religious references (Madonna, Jesus, Joan of Arc) and Dominique de Villepin for his Napoleonic rough-riding are today ready to march shoulder-to-shoulder with both under the banner of la République en danger. They are prepared to rise en masse to face the combined forces of hydra-headed Reaction. This is overheated. Calm down. Nothing has happened. There is much more to worry about in the credit markets than in the rhetoric of Nicolas Sarkozy. These political passions are misplaced. Save them for when they are really needed.