His time in the wilderness lasted only a few months. It ended when France, the intellectual engine of European integration for half a century, became the first country to reject the proposed European constitution in a referendum last May. Chirac had invested his political credibility in a "Yes" vote. Worse, the sound drubbing his side received was attributed in part to Chirac's own incompetence in appealing to the nation in a pair of televised appearances. Compelled to reshuffle his cabinet, Chirac made Villepin prime minister and invited Sarkozy back to become minister of state for the interior, a position that gave him responsibility for public order on the eve of the Paris riots.
A cop or a hope?
France now is going through a crisis of national self-confidence, somewhat akin to what Americans went through in the late 1970s. Every day seems to bring a disorienting new factoid or outrage. In December, in tampes, for instance, a teacher was stabbed in class. Nine thousand cars were burned in 2005 before the riots of last fall. But the two weeks of burned cars, smashed buildings, and menacing hip-hop gestures in October and November were particularly disorienting. Unlike the riots of 1968, the uprising in the suburbs produced no leaders, no social movement, no body of thinking that outside observers could either accept or deplore, and no demands that could be productively answered. Three months after the events, there was still no consensus in French public opinion over what the riots were even about. Some said that Islam played a central role in the events, others that it played none at all. One former minister even credibly asserted that the involvement of North African Arabs in the events was minimal, and that the lion's share of the destruction was carried out by newer immigrants from elsewhere.
The lack of a ready-made agenda in addressing the riots--or even of a clear diagnosis--was less of a challenge for Sarkozy than it would have been for other politicians. "I speak for the people who live real life, not for those who live virtual life," he says over breakfast. "What interests me is not to describe injustices, but to combat them." That is one reason his popularity rose in the course of the riots, even though keeping public order is, in theory, his job, and despite an onslaught of criticism in the press. Another reason was the extraordinary physical courage Sarkozy has shown over the years, which matters a great deal wherever television, violence, and democratic politics meet. In 1993, when a hostage-taker with a bomb took over a nursery school in Neuilly, Sarkozy walked into the building and negotiated the release of several schoolchildren face-to-face with the criminal.
Although not as hard during the riots as the "Kärcher"-and "racaille"-filled press reports would imply, Sarkozy was tough, and he has been tough ever since. He has not been cowed or apologetic before suggestions that his tough stance might win him votes from the far-right National Front. "I always try to get as many votes as possible," he says at the ministry of the interior, "whether it's from the FN or anywhere else." (A poll in Valeurs Actuelles even showed him doing better among Le Pen supporters than Le Pen.) He defended the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who was attacked as a "deviant" and a "reactionary" in politically correct circles after saying of the rioters in an interview that "there are people in France who hate France as a republic." And since the turn of the year Sarkozy has courted the wrath of immigrant lobbies. It has long been his view (he mentioned it in his New Year's address to the press) that family reunification rules were being abused to maximize immigration. Last month, Sarkozy suggested a reform of the immigration laws--not to diminish immigration but to orient it around the skills that France needs. This illustrates Dévédjian's claim that Sarkozy seeks to break with the tradition of French exceptionalism. "In the great democracies," Sarkozy said in January, "immigration is usually considered a source of dynamism and opportunity."
Here Sarkozy's ideology has been highly syncretic. He has won the standing to talk like a hard man of the right because a lot of his program comes from the soft-hearted left. When Sarkozy says, "I want to put in place a policy that affects these neighborhoods directly," he is talking about two things. The first is affirmative action, or "positive discrimination," as it is called in France. It can be argued that France needs such measures desperately, that the inscrutability of the riots (and of the hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents earlier this decade) arose from the lack of ghetto interlocutors who had one foot firmly in the wider French society.
But affirmative action is a radical departure for France, where unequal treatment of citizens is viewed as an attack on core values of the republic. Both Villepin and Chirac have opposed it, as have many on the left. Sarkozy shows a bit of the naiveté of, say, Hubert Humphrey in 1964 when he implies the program would be only temporary. "Positive discrimination implies a limitation in time," he says. "Once the injustice is taken care of, there's no need to envision any specific discrimination." How long would the program last, then? Twenty years? "No, twenty years is too long."
The second leg of his soft approach is to bring Islam into the mainstream of French life. Most people in France pay lip service to this idea, but Sarkozy acts on it. A great deal of the work Sarkozy has done with the two-year-old French Council of the Muslim Faith involves getting non-pork dishes into school cafeterias and arranging for Muslim burials to be allowed in municipal cemeteries.
French people, to put it mildly, are worried about Islam. They notice yawning gaps between Muslim and non-Muslim sentiment. For instance, according to a poll released by the Center for Political Research (Cevipof) in December, Muslim French are almost twice as likely as others (39 percent to 21 percent) to disapprove of homosexuality. The French fret, too, that many of the institutions of French Islam are supported by foreign governments and note that Sarkozy's CFCM has for periods been under the domination of the hard-line Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF). Sarkozy's approach is to blow past these worries, to face up to the fact that Islam is in France to stay, and to focus on making coexistence tolerable to all parties. His supporters say that without the CFCM, the UOIF could have drifted out of the mainstream altogether. "I judge by my own district," says Patrick Dévédjian of Sarkozy. "The young, marginalized kids--yes, they think of him as just a cop. But for the 90 percent who want to integrate into French life, he's a real source of hope."
Unemployment has been in double digits in France for most of the past two decades. But it is at 20 percent for youth, and 40 percent for youth in the suburbs. This is another of those areas where Sarkozy intends to break with French exceptionalism. His favorite public-policy thinkers--the ones whose books he recommends to visitors--are Alain Minc and Nicolas Baverez. Both have focused on the country's giant problems: first, a deficit that has swollen to unmanageable levels; and, second, France's still-incomplete reconciliation to the global economy. "The problem with France," Sarkozy said in a January speech, "is not that we work too much but that we don't work enough." He clearly believes the 35-hour work week, won by a Socialist government in the late 1990s, is damaging France's competitiveness, although this is still too treasured an "entitlement" to be attacked frontally, or by name--especially after the alarming successes scored by anti-free market rhetoric in last spring's referendum on Europe.
The free market, in fact, is the most likely means by which Sarkozy could get "demagogued" out of the presidency for which he appears destined. In the heat of an election campaign it is easy for a political establishment to pick apart the "heartlessness" of one who would reform the welfare state. In Germany, Angela Merkel--who held a double-digit lead before last fall's campaign started and today has the highest poll numbers ever recorded for a German postwar leader--came within a hair's breadth of losing to Gerhard Schröder last September when her socialist opponents began dissecting her flat-tax plans. (This is a reading that Sarkozy disputes. "No," he says. "The reason for that is that M. Schröder also had an important reform package himself.")
The other potential pitfall is foreign policy. Sarkozy has often deviated sharply from the positions of Chirac. Some of these deviations will help him. He opposed Turkish entry into the European Union. He takes terrorism more seriously than Chirac does: He thinks the recent spate of books in France that deal with barbarism is due to people's worries about terrorism, "because terrorism is nothing but barbarism." He supports Israel more forthrightly than do most French politicians, although he shares their insistence that peace rests on the establishment of a Palestinian state. "I support Israel because it's the right thing to do," he says. "Israel is a democracy, Israel is a francophone country, and Israel came into being after the Holocaust. That's three good reasons." Although today, Sarkozy speaks of "reservations" he had about the U.S. intervention in Iraq, he was known to be unhappy at the time with the style in which Chirac and Villepin opposed it.
Certainly, Villepin will have the advantage in foreign policy when the election comes, whether that is next year or earlier. After suffering what the press euphemistically calls a "cerebral accident" last September, Chirac has been slow to regain his form. In a January speech in Tulle, in his old electoral district of Corrèze, he made a dozen bumbles where he substituted similar words for words that were written in his speech ("No one is extended" for "No one is astounded," that sort of thing).
The presidential election, whenever it happens, is difficult to game out, and full of paradoxes. It's a two-round election, like elections in Louisiana, where the top two finishers in a first round compete head-to-head in a runoff. Everyone expected Villepin--distant from the people, never elected to office, without his finger on the pulse, etc.--to stumble when he started to campaign. But everyone has thus far been wrong. Villepin has shown himself a gifted politician, lifting some of Sarkozy's more attractive programs and running a well-controlled campaign. That does not solve Villepin's big problem--he is Chirac's designated heir at a time when an heir to Chirac is the last thing the French people want.
Unfortunately for Sarkozy, the second-to-last thing the French people want is a real reformer. Villepin has attacked French "déclinologues," a term cleverly intended to present any attempt to diagnose and fix France's problems as somehow anti-French. If Villepin and Sarkozy should both make it to the second round--a real possibility, if the left is as fragmented as it was in 2002 and if Sarkozy peels votes away from the far right--Villepin will win, since his role in obstructing the war on Iraq will gain him the votes of the left. If there is a unified left, and a strong socialist candidate--such as the social-conservative member of parliament Ségolène Royal--then the odds are even for Sarkozy. Anything can happen.
Or almost anything. One thing that appears highly unlikely is the eclipse of Sarkozy as the dominant and defining French politician of his generation.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.