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‘The Rich People’s President’

Will France’s Nicolas Sarkozy be the next European leader to fall?

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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At any rate, Sarkozy is behaving as if the best place to look for votes is on the far right. In early February in the National Assembly, Claude Guéant, the interior minister, remarked that “not all civilizations are equal” when it comes to women’s rights, among other things. Serge Letchimy, a Socialist from Martinique, accused Guéant of Nazi sympathies. “Day after day you lead us back to those European ideologies that led to the concentration camps,” Letchimy scolded him. 

Ordinarily, you would look at a moment like this as further evidence of Sarkozy’s political genius. And in a way, it is: At a time when he needs to shore up votes, he has provoked his foolish opponents into demagogically invoking the Nazis. Sarkozy nonetheless remains in big trouble.

Hollande daze

On one hand, the president needs to fish for votes on the hard right. On the other hand, he is facing, in François Hollande, a man who is synonymous with personal and ideological moderation and might seem like a low-risk option for centrist voters who worry that Sarko has gone over the top. A graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration, Hollande used to teach macroeconomics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. Hollande is a real party man—his then-common-law wife, Ségolène Royal, was the party’s nominee against Sarkozy in 2007. And although Hollande has never held a cabinet post, he was party chairman for a decade. That was the decade, starting with the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin in 1997, when the party embraced business, privatizing more state enterprises than any government before or since. The Socialists also completed their migration from the factory floor to the faculty club. You might describe Hollande as Dominique Strauss-Kahn with a bit less economic brilliance and a good deal less personal baggage. Hollande is known as a fine tribunicien. This is a qualified way of complimenting his oratory. It means he is good at spelling out the party program to those who already agree with it. At Le Bourget on January 22, he gave a barn-burning address that rallied a lot of the party behind him. 

But not all of it. Hollande has a problem that will be familiar to those following the U.S. election: He doesn’t sufficiently fire up the hard-liners. He is a Gallic Mitt Romney. So comfortable is he in the reasonable-sounding consensus-oriented part of his party that the fire-breathers never take his loyalty for granted. Hollande is constantly having to swear he’ll do radical things if anyone ever lets him near real power. So, as with Romney, half the country thinks him dangerous, and the other half thinks him insincere. Having spent the 1980s and 1990s under the tutelage of Jacques Delors, France’s leading advocate of transferring powers to the European Union, Hollande may be the party’s most dyed-in-the-wool technocrat. He is most comfortable in front of an audience of bankers, like the one in London last month to whom he boasted that “today there are no Communists in France.” 

Well, there are more than Hollande thinks. And whenever they attack him, he blurts out radical-seeming sound bites that confuse people. Since many on the left of his party oppose the EU “fiscal pact” negotiated two months ago to protect Greece and other debtor countries from bankruptcy, Hollande promised to renegotiate it. A big mistake. His aside infuriated Angela Merkel. Everyone except Chancellor Merkel, however, understood that Hollande had no intention of doing any such thing. That is why Sarkozy opened his own campaign with a speech attacking Hollande: “Someone who tells the English press he’s a free-marketer and then tells the French that finance is the enemy,” Sarkozy said in Annecy in mid-February, “is lying—lying morning, noon, and night—and this lie does no honor to the person who voices it.”

One of the big surprises of the campaign has been the strength of hard-left movements within and without the Socialist party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon bolted the party in 2008 to form the Front de Gauche, a movement that resembles the ex-Communist Left party in Germany. One of their ideas is to win back the Communists who defected to the National Front in the 1980s and 1990s. Mélenchon’s movement may seem illogical. It vilifies Europe but somehow can’t work up the gumption to call for withdrawal from the euro. It seems to believe that the only purpose of a nation-state is to nationalize industries. It extols Hugo Chávez, along with various 19th-century leftists. But about other issues, the Front de Gauche has a clarity that certain people like. One of these is taxation. Its plan is to tax all earnings over 20 times the median income (that is, all earnings over about $500,000) at 100 percent—to confiscate them, in other words. Socialists may snicker at the Front de Gauche as a mere bunch of “angry professors,” but new polls show the party bumping up against double digits—and these are all votes that the Socialists see themselves as having lost by being insufficiently socialist. 

Last week witnessed one of the strangest moments of the campaign. Hollande was on the television channel TF1, being interviewed about an important question—the ability of rich people to avoid high tax rates by declaring income as capital gains. He was tongue-tied. He began to stammer a bit, and you could almost see him doing math in his head. Then he blurted out that he planned to establish a new 75 percent tax bracket on French people making more than a million euros a month—no, sorry, he corrected himself a few minutes later, a million euros a year. Now, it’s worth noting that, even at the high-water mark of France’s self-proclaimed socialism, taxes never rose as high as those here during the New Deal. The tax Hollande was proposing would be the highest since the Herriot government was floundering in the aftermath of World War I. 

Hollande appeared to be winging it. His top budget adviser, Jérôme Cahuzac, was on another network, France2, just a few minutes later. He told the questioner that he frankly had no idea what tax plan Hollande was talking about. Yet there was method in Hollande’s seeming madness. Perhaps he was reading the same polls as U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who had said days earlier that paying high taxes was the least one could do for the “privilege” of being American. Hollande’s way of putting it was: “It’s patriotism to accept paying an extra tax to put the country back in order.” French people seemed to agree: A TNS Sofres poll released Friday showed 61 percent backed the tax.

Histoire d’O

Sarkozy, then, is not the only candidate being pushed to extremes, but he would be unwise to take too much solace in that. France’s president has much in common with our own. Both Sarkozy and Obama come from the ideological wing of their parties, and yet both were able to romance undecided voters in the center of the electorate, winning almost all of them. Sarkozy and Obama are politicians who were nominated in the naïve days of the credit bubble but have had to govern when everyone understands that Voter A’s government-funded health plan, let’s say, comes directly out of Voter B’s paycheck. They are pre-crash politicians trying to get reelected in a post-crash world. 

Obama is in a better position. For one thing, Sarko’s economic model was based on rewarding work. “Work more to earn more” was his slogan. Spend less to keep from going under is more like the way most people have experienced the last half-decade. Obama’s campaign did not promise anyone anything about the rewards of work. Sarkozy’s second problem is that, unlike President Obama, he has no big, base-rallying achievements. True, Sarkozy’s modest raising of the French retirement age, from 60 to 62, was an Augean labor in a country so committed to the welfare state. But it does not win the gratitude of taxpayers in the way that Obama’s health plan pleased Democratic true believers. Nor does it provide a piñata to anybody, as the stimulus bill and the automobile bailouts did to labor unions. True, Sarkozy has introduced a rational system for military-base closings, a reform of universities that has left teachers reasonably satisfied, and minimum sentences for certain crimes. He has given voters many good reasons to reelect him. But he has given nobody a really good reason.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West.

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