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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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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. 

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