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Vive la Différence

Are France’s more centrist politics better than ours (and not just for the sex)?

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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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.

Photo of Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy

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.

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