As Maine is New England’s Texas, France is Europe’s U.S.A. It’s big. It’s ornery. Like us, the French are notably more inward-looking than Europe’s other populous, geographically big, and prosperous states. Despite France’s co-leadership of the European unification project, a new German Marshall Fund study shows the French have the least confidence in EU leadership, are more anti-EU than any other EU country except the U.K., and have the largest percentage who think the euro has been bad for their economy​—​a solid 60 percent majority. France may symbolize cosmopolitanism to the world but doesn’t itself partake. Over 92 percent of the French never leave the hexagone during their long vacations. Italians are 60 percent more likely to visit another EU country, Germans 227 percent more likely, and sea-girt Britons 314 percent more likely to brave the Channel.

The French presidential election, with primaries next month and a finale next spring, also mirrors our own. Sarkozy, France’s well-tailored and glamorous president, will like our own be seeking a second term. This year he finds himself in a predicament similar to President Obama’s. His popularity has reached historic lows measured in poll numbers that seem relatively unresponsive to his words or deeds. From an unprecedented 30 percent in the spring, Sarkozy’s approval percentage has risen to only 37 percent after a summer spent on familiar problems: the Libya police action and a financial crisis at home. Sarkozy’s rivals, like Obama’s, enjoy the media spotlight and predictions that convince them that the only elections that matter are their party primaries, which take place next month. The winner of the Socialist party nomination will step into the shoes of “Generic Sarkozy Opponent” and win the presidency next April or May, much as America’s own beloved Generic Republican Candidate stands to beat Obama.

With all these similarities, what is fascinating about the French campaign is that its candidates, unlike our own, elbow one another in order to be closest to the political center. Our own much-lamented tendency, of course, is for candidates and parties to move towards the periphery in order to highlight their differences, seizing on a clearly delineated issue from which they cannot be budged, even though it may seem extreme: guns, abortion, budget hawkishness. So the Gallic rooster’s entrails are worth examining, not just because of the beautiful women, dashing men, and their sexcapades (about which more later), but because France models a kind of centrist, consensual politics that many tell us we should yearn for. Does it produce a governing class that reflects the desires of the electors? And is a race to the center inherently a good thing​—​or an effective strategy​—​for American candidates and political parties?

Sarkozy’s strategic position may be as unenviable as Obama’s, but a big difference between them is style. Our president has gone into full campaign mode, and press reporting on the White House takes this for granted. Sarkozy takes the opposite tack. The French media cover the Socialist primary and candidates in exacting detail, seldom mentioning the current president whom the winner will probably face next year. Sarkozy refuses to sweat on camera. Last week the right-of-center daily Le Figaro ran an admiring story on Sarkozy’s election sang-froid. For the entire summer he dismayed his staff by simply refusing to discuss the reelection campaign. Sarkozy’s presumptive campaign manager confided to Figaro that Sarkozy finally permitted some discussion at a dinner in late August with the chairman of his UMP party​—​a particular moment, he recalled, between the pear and the cheese.

How Sarkozy dug himself into his pit is a different story. We might think of it as a French version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career in California. Sarkozy won the 2007 election on a law-and-order platform. As a government minister he had become famous for his tough talk on urban crime to a nation disturbed by the riots in Paris’s suburban slums, dominated by immigrant populations whose youth erupted in violence, burning almost 9,000 cars and injuring over 100 police. Sarkozy dared to call the rioters racaille​—​scum​—​which thrilled middle France and scandalized the media. His campaign two years later built on this Giulianiesque image, and promised the same toughness on budgeting, with economic reform along Reagan-Thatcher lines. Sarkozy promised to loosen restrictions on capital and labor​—​particularly the notorious 35-hour work week​—​in order to help France’s economy catch up to the rest of the world. But, like Schwarzenegger, he changed his politics dramatically midway through his term. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, he abandoned his combative free-market stance.

Even when Sarkozy executes a policy U-turn, he does so as a manager, not a community organizer. Like many leading French politicians, he came to national prominence as a local leader. As mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a prosperous Paris suburb, he had the kind of prominence that, say, the Westchester County executive has in New York: a big job near the country’s media capital. During his quest for the presidency, Sarkozy’s personal life was as complex and demanding to manage as his cabinet position. He’s had three wives of diverse origins​—​Marie-Dominique Culioli from Corsica, Russian-Spanish Cecilia Ciganer-Albéniz, and French-Italian Carla Bruni​—​but they all come from what Philip Roth called “the country of Fetching.” The nation thrilled as Sarkozy’s second marriage fell apart for a second time, after a trial desertion two years earlier. Upon assuming office, the grieving Sarkozy courted Bruni, a woman with an international reputation for difficulty. While he was memorizing the launch codes for France’s nuclear deterrent, he persuaded her to become engaged, and their marriage took place nine months into his presidency.

The French thought they had elected a Giuliani, but for the second half of his five-year term Sarkozy has governed and sometimes spoken like a Franco-Hungarian Jon Huntsman. He has called for higher taxes on the rich, has yielded to protesting unions and students, and has been a loyal member of NATO and a good European. So good a European, in fact, that this summer he and his German counterpart Angela Merkel proposed themselves as a Bismarck/Napoleon consortium to rule a more forcibly united EU. Sarkozy has a valid claim to call the war against -Libya’s Qaddafi his war. If Obama led from behind, Sarkozy followed from out front. It was Sarkozy who decided that it was imperative to back the rebels with Western arms, who convinced British prime minister David Cameron to join him in persuading Obama to go along (and to provide the bulk of the firepower). So Sarkozy’s prospects in the 2012 election should interest those on either side of the debate about whether “electability” matters to electability. He is, in French terms, the sort of non-Tea-Party, un-Southern-accented, social and economic moderate who doesn’t give the French equivalents of David Brooks the heebie-jeebies.

How, then, does the neo-centrist Sarkozy fare with voters? Not very well. His surrender to the center hasn’t earned him much popularity with the chattering classes. His triumph in Libya over the summer moved his approval numbers from catastrophic to merely disastrous. And his centrist actions seem tone-deaf to flyover France’s concerns. Sarkozy raised the Value Added Tax on theme park admission tickets for this past summer, enraging families who had looked forward all year to their visit to EuroDisney. He reversed course under heavy pressure from theme park operators. Although only Financial Times readers are conversant with Sarkozy’s proposed wealth levy on the super rich, every homeowner knows that his prime minister has announced the end of tax breaks for long-term gains on residences, amounting to a confiscation of a considerable proportion of middle-class wealth. Pundits in the United States warn GOP candidates about the “bad optics” of opposing tax hikes for the rich. It’s not clear from the French example that symbolic moves matter much to the great mass of voters.

The French incumbent faces challenges from left and right. Polls show that the challenge from the left has momentum: Sixty percent prefer a president from the Socialist party. The right-wing challenger, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, which has acted to shed the anti-Semitic and racist image of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, polls in the high teens. But gauche and droite is different from left and right. Translated to American politics, the policy difference between the Socialist party and the National Front is roughly equivalent to the distance between a Democratic congressman from California and a Blue Dog congressman from West Virginia.

Leading all actual candidates is what a French Michael Barone would call Candidate X: a generic Socialist party candidate running against Sarkozy. The actual candidate will be chosen in two rounds of voting in October. Until he had to check out of his hotel in a hurry to catch a plane in May, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and a man of Sarkozy-like personal magnetism, seemed to have the Socialist nomination sewed up. Polls showed he would beat Sarkozy with 62 percent of the vote. DSK’s notorious difficulties in communicating his feelings to women sold newspapers and prompted a good deal of anger within his own party, the partisan home of France’s feminist elite. But it also opened the field to a wide range of unprepared challengers, all luminaries in the party that is native to affluent, college-educated, bien-pensant France. They include the woman whom Sarkozy defeated to win the presidency in 2007, Ségolène Royal, Royal’s former common-law husband, François Hollande, and the mayor of the northern industrial city of Lille, Martine Aubry, who is also chairman of the party. These three and several -others are all competing in the two-stage primary next month.

Subtly handsome Hollande leads the field in the polls. A familiar figure in French politics for 20 years, he may owe his emergence as frontrunner more to his figure than his program. Hollande’s sleek new look has been a triumph of presidential politicking (Governor Christie, take note). “Ask any French person​—​nine out of ten will mention his waistline,” as Jean-Bernard Cadier, a news editor for the France 24 TV network, put it. “Now what sticks with everyone is how much weight he has lost [17 pounds]. And for the French, this is a sign of strong resolve .  .  . a big asset for him.”

Hollande was shown the door by Royal, the mother of his four children, shortly after her 2007 campaign. Her sudden decision to run against him is often described as the act of a scorned woman seeking revenge. But Royal retains her Katie Couric-like freshness at 57, and among the candidates she is the most photogenic and appealing.

The stolid figure and often scowling face of Martine Aubry​—​resolutely dumpy in a world of beautifully turned-out female French political and media figures​—​has gotten the most press coverage over the summer, focusing on her family life and her fury to protect her husband, the civil-rights activist Jean-Louis Brochen, from accusations that he is the “lawyer for Islamists.” He’s active in the left-wing Ligue des droits de l’Homme, which lies somewhere on the ideological spectrum between the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild, and which feminists like Caroline Fourest describe as “frequently very ambiguous” on women’s rights when they conflict with the religious obligations of French Muslims, such as the veil. There are rumors that her partnership with Brochen is a mariage blanc​—​which the French public finds scandalous, instead of respectable.

Aubry, as mayor of Lille, was bound to be on good terms with that city’s large Muslim community, and she had made many public accommodations for Muslim religious practices that in the opinion of some were violations of France’s rigorous constitutional separation between state and religion and would never have been made out of deference to the sensibilities of Catholics or Jews. Aubry took the line earlier this year that the label “lawyer for Islamists” was a concoction of “ultra-Zionists” until a journalist discovered that the label originated in a 2004 book by the impeccably intellectually chic Fourest.

Aubry, as loyal to her man as Strauss-Kahn’s wife has been to hers, defends her husband with litigation and repeated fusillades launched bravely at all enemies, from the lowliest pensioner with a blog to the president of the Republic. Sarkozy’s party responds by drawing attention to her attacks: The UMP party chairman told Le Figaro that Aubry is trying to create a diversion to distract the public from her lack of political ideas. “Aubry has a new idea​—​really? Will it shed light on the Socialist position on immigration, digital technology, or education? .  .  . No, she declares war on the UMP because it appears that the UMP has spoken ill of Martine Aubry.”

One leaves these heated precincts of loyalty, betrayal, conspiracy, and revenge with regret to turn to the policy differences that the Socialist standard-bearer will run on. What novel proposals do the Socialists offer voters? The candidates all agree on these basics: reduce France’s deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2014, lower the retirement age (which Sarkozy raised to 62 less than a year ago) back to 60, roll back a number of other anti-unemployment measures, fund preschool for 500,000 more children, create 300,000 new jobs for youth, index the minimum wage to inflation, increase barriers to trade, and raise taxes.

With smaller numbers and percentages attached, there aren’t many of these policies that are unimaginable coming from a Sarkozy second-term government. Sarkozy himself is saying little, admitting that for the head of state, 2012 is too far in the future to issue election promises that would not be affected by the European economic crisis. If Sarkozy and the Socialists increasingly resemble one another, it is because they are, as many advise the Republicans to do, both seeking the same political center. The question is only who best can claim it: a pink UMP or a PS mugged by reality. The centrist voter may find it difficult to get very excited about that choice. And the picture is further confused by the fact that a former member of Sarkozy’s cabinet with an even more exotic name, Jean-Louis Borloo, is thought to be Sarkozy’s biggest worry. Why? Borloo may be building a centrist presidential campaign which aims to insert itself into the impossibly narrow space between Socialists and Sarkozyists.

Neither the Socialists nor Sarkozy would be attractive to a typical center-right American voter. Would such a voter turn naturally to the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen? Let’s stipulate that the National Front has been purged of its racist and anti-Semitic heritage​—​and this may in fact be increasingly the case. A specialty of French political bloggers is to announce the discovery among the party’s supporters and staff of exotic political opposites: an Islamist and an Islamophobe, a neofascist and a Trotskyist, an anti-Semite and an ultra-Zionist, a hurler of threats at Algerian immigrants and a leader of the Algerian immigrant community.

The attractive, mellow, and modern Marine Le Pen has been duly denounced by her father, although immigration and traditional values are her issues. Her sanitizing has attracted more supporters than her father ever had, from a wider range of people, but she has not defused the hatred and fear of the French chattering classes, for whom the National Front is still not salonfähig. To an American conservative, it’s not her ethnic/social appeal that would sound strange, such as her demand that French children be taught French history, not postcolonial narratology. But her economic policies are repellent to anyone outside the Pat Buchanan wing of the GOP. Le Pen is a Blue Dog Democrat in American terms: antiglobalization, full of schemes to protect domestic industry, picking winners among sectors and companies. In spending and entitlement policy she boasts that President Obama is “plus à droite que moi,” further to the right than I am. Her commitment to the state provision of cradle-to-grave economic security is ironclad.

There is no way that the political wish list of the majority of Americans who now say they intend to vote GOP in 2012 could be fulfilled by any of the French parties. We would have the choice that French economic liberals/social conservatives have: to waste one’s vote on a tiny party that aspires to reach a single percentage point of the vote, or to choose the lesser among a choice of evils that, as far as Tea Party policies go (constitutionalism, low taxes, and less regulation), are nearly identical.

There is no place in French politics for a pro-capitalist, pro-constitutionalist populist movement like the Tea Party, or for any of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination (I’ll pause here while the cheering in the MSNBC studio dies down). But here’s what’s even worse about the center-seeking French system. It doesn’t allow any populist leaven at all in the political baguette. The grand gesture, the romantic, unattainable desire, and the purism of our various populist movements, right and, more commonly, left, have enriched our political culture by periodically scaring the pants off our political class, forcing its members to humble themselves by touching hands with the voters​—​reconnecting with them, even at the cost of losing face with the New York Times and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. The necessity to retain this connection with disaffected voters, understood instinctively by Democratic members of Congress after the 2010 midterms, infuriates liberal pundits because they haven’t any feeling for it. What does France provide its voters in the place of populism? In 2011, instead of reconnecting with the French electorate, the French political class offers them​—​Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Known by his initials, BHL is in many ways an admirable figure, and certainly a romantic one, thundering against the old left, denouncing any sign of reemerging Stalinism, taking stands that are reminiscent of America’s Cold War liberals of old. This summer, BHL made a lot of noise in support of two causes: the liberation of Libya, for which he claims even more credit than Sarkozy, and the injustice of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. In each cause, he imagined himself a prophet, giving voice to the demands of an aroused public​—​a public that is in fact rather cynical about the prospects of a happy outcome in Libya and the fundamental innocence of DSK. BHL is tone-deaf to popular ideas​—​that there is something corrupt about how DSK had been protected by the establishment while he enjoyed himself with women, willing and not so much, at the expense of the nation. BHL’s hymns to Libyan freedom and his self-dramatizing arrival in -Tripoli have not in fact made much of a difference to the success or failure of the Libyans who fought on the ground, or the NATO forces in the air. BHL himself is not to be blamed: It is the French political culture that we have just examined which has a weakness for the likes of BHL, even as it is deaf to the popular expression of political desires.

Okay, so the New York Times editorial board has now joined the MSNBC cheering section. But even non-conservatives should recognize that the outcome of the French system is bad in this respect: It isolates politics, politicians, and lawmaking from voters. Think of our unenviable president. Obama is inclined to do nothing different during the next year, but were he to undertake any of a number of actions to conciliate the rebellious voters of 2010, he could make his reelection probable and put his party in a much better place.

On the other hand, the president of France poses as a man of action, and may well be one. But his actions—​some of them ill-advised, some of them perfectly pitched​—​will have no consequences. For example, Sarkozy has spent the summer pushing a balanced budget amendment, called la règle d’or, through the legislature. The French public wants it, the Socialists, idiotically, opposed it​—​and it will not make much difference to Sarkozy’s lack of popularity or the Socialists’ lead. The French voter is accustomed to seeing the political class make solemn, unbreakable pledges​—​such as the promise that nations entering the eurozone would never let deficits rise above 3 percent of GDP​—then ​break them with electoral impunity. It was not just Greece and Portugal but France and Germany who repeatedly violated these terms in the early 2000s, as Holland’s finance minister scornfully declared recently. Our own president has discovered that Americans do not reward speeches unaccompanied by action. Sarkozy has discovered that the French do not reward action even when he spares them the speeches.

Imagine a Sarkoized Obama (even if these statements are, clearly, packaged to feed the public). If Joe Biden were to say, as a Sarkozy adviser told Le Figaro, “When you’re in a war, you don’t spend time thinking about the next election.” Or were Jay Carney to declare, as Sarkozy’s communications chief did, “The president is convinced that the best way to campaign is to do his job—especially during the [opposition’s] primary.” Or if Obama were to think, as Sarkozy does, in the words of the same communications chief: “It is a time for decisions, not for speechifying. The French see what we do: You can’t establish your credibility by decree.”

Sarkozy’s strategy for reelection is not to say very much, not to expect very much, and to do what he pleases. On a number of matters it is prudent of him to wait, and even more prudent to remain silent. No one can possibly know the final outcome of causes he has been associated with, such as Libya and the fight to save the euro. An adviser put it well, speaking in July to Charles Jaigu of Le Figaro. Sarkozy disappointed those who voted for him, and they think they want a change. After they get a good look at the competition, they will see that “the president, finally, isn’t so bad.”

American voters, both right and left, want more and get more from their candidates than “not so bad” because they have the power to punish those who disappoint them​—​by choosing to replace them with someone whose differences are clear and distinct, even if doing so alarms the New York Times op-ed page. Would ordering things here as they do in France, eschewing divisiveness and seeking the center, improve the health of our politics? No​—​except for the sex part.

Sam Schulman last wrote for The Weekly Standard on “Frenemies of Free Speech.”

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