What The Socialist Implosion Means For France

For three months, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been telling the people of France, of Europe and anyone else on the planet who would listen that the world as we know it is coming to an end. In language almost as lyrically apocalyptic as the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold, who warned that the world "hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain," Sarkozy talks of an economic, social and political crisis so profound that "it is going to change the world's equilibrium. It is going to change behavior, ideals, values." And in case listeners are looking for someone to lead them out of this dark night into a brighter future, well, there stands Sarkozy as the man of destiny: "This crisis, we must not submit to it," he vows. "This crisis, we must face up to it without fail. This crisis, it must not incite us to hold back; it must incite us to act, to act fast, and to act forcefully." That is, as we've learned, the Sarkozy style.

Another politician might be pilloried for wretched rhetorical excess—even if, in fact, he was right about the extent of the crisis. Another politician might be lambasted for egregious egotism, and Sarkozy certainly has his critics. But unlike many another politician—unlike any other head of state in any other major European capital, in fact—Sarkozy has no effective opposition at all. The far right crumbled before his election last year and the Socialist Party collapsed after it, sinking into a slough of internal rivalries that culminated with a ferocious, divisive leadership battle last month. If there is some power in heaven or on earth that could call Sarkozy to account, there's certainly none in Parliament, where his backers hold a comfortable 55 percent majority in the National Assembly—and there are no major elections for another three years.

By nature unabashed and unapologetic, Sarkozy is now, to all intents and purposes, unrestrained by domestic checks and balances. The French president has become Sarkozy Unbound, for better or worse. And given such a particular personality in such perilous times, in fact that's the key question: Is he using his freedom of action for better? Or for worse?

Thus far, on balance, one would have to say for the better. The French financial daily La Tribune announced last week that a panel of international journalists who cover the European Union deemed Sarkozy "the best European leader" among the 27 heads of government. But even when Sarkozy shows dazzling initiative there are signs of potentially disastrous overreach. In all aspects of his political life, wherever Sarkozy perceives a lack of leadership—real or imagined—he moves to fill it personally. He abhors a vacuum, whether in his own cabinet, where he often pre-empts the prime minister's role as a manager; in the judiciary, where he sometimes gets obsessively involved in relatively trivial cases; and even in Washington, where he pushed hard for the lame-duck Bush administration to hold the G20 summit only days after the U.S. election.

And it is precisely at the European level that Sarkozy the irresistible force has run into fellow leaders who intend to be immovable objects. His obstreperous ways have alienated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who resists, ever more firmly, France's calls for collective measures to address the current economic disaster and the long-term threat of global warming. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (voted the worst European leader in La Tribune) is theatrical to a fault, and has done his best to upstage Sarkozy with pointed objections to his initiatives. The newer members of the European Union, most notably the Poles, have refused to back down before the Sarkozy onslaught.

Those with whom he's hoped to make common cause are, as it were, the most politically vacuous of the Union's leaders. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has become an important ally, but is debilitated by his country's Labour fatigue and the strongest Tory opposition in a generation. Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is troubled by relentless opposition attacks as the country's economic miracle turns to dust amid the crisis. So instead of working alongside his colleagues, Sarkozy has riled them, flatly declaring, for instance, that eurozone finance ministers are not up to the challenge of the global crisis, instead suggesting a regular meeting of eurozone heads of state and government—just like the one he chaired in October to agree on a rescue plan for Europe's banks. The proposal drew a rebuke from Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who made it a point to say he doesn't head the eurozone ministers' group for "pleasure or personal glory" and appeared to question Sarkozy's commitment to anything more than the spotlight. If others think they can do better, said Juncker, "they should apply the same intensity for the years to come as they appear to want to apply right now."

Such is Sarkozy's overt inclination to let ambition outweigh diplomatic amity that he has seemed determined to keep a hand on the helm of Europe, no matter what diplomatic conventions, or other leaders, stand in his way. The Frenchman is due to hand off the rotating EU captaincy he has held since July to Prague at the end of the year. But as early as August, French diplomats wondered aloud, if in private, whether a smaller country than France could have faced the global challenges of the day so ably.

Sarkozy—there's no secret here—very much liked being president of a continent as well as a country and could argue with some justification that he acted where others might have stalled and got results where others would have given only rhetoric. When Russia invaded Georgia in August, for instance, Sarkozy himself got on a plane to Moscow and then to Tbilisi, a city about to be besieged, to negotiate a ceasefire that may well have saved the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Certainly Sarkozy gave that impression, regaling the Georgians with stories of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's grabbing him by the lapels while growling, "I want Saakashvili's head on that wall!" And the Georgians credit Sarkozy with keeping that from happening. "Sarkozy is an extraordinary person," says Temur Iakobashvili, an influential member of the Georgian cabinet, "and his extraordinariness is explained by different people in different ways: you can say 'crazy,' 'heroic,' 'hotheaded,' 'mercurial'." But "we should not underestimate the role Sarkozy played," says Iakobashvili. He took the diplomatic lead in stopping the Russian military advance, says the minister, and ultimately he "saved Georgia."

There's no question that a personality like Sarkozy's thrives on crisis. After global financial calamity began in earnest with the collapse of Lehman Brothers' investment bank in the United States on Sept. 15, Sarkozy reportedly rejected the text of a speech that would have soft-pedaled the extent of the disaster. Instead, he told his compatriots bluntly 10 days after Lehman, "This is the end of a world." And with no opposition on the left or the right, he could turn his economic policies in a whole new direction. Having been elected on a platform of less state intervention—the smaller-government, lower-taxes mantra the Republican Party has long made an article of faith in the United States—Sarkozy suddenly embraced state intervention with a vengeance, promoting this month a €26 billion stimulus package that would dramatically increase France's budget deficit.

The pirouette is classic Sarkozy. Indeed, it's one of the reasons he has been so successful at destroying opposition parties. Despite a long career brandishing conservative Gaullist credentials, his most important political credo is what the French call volontarisme, his faith in the ability to influence events through sheer willpower. To that end, he adopts whichever policies look like they'll work, and whichever put him out front. On his way to the presidency, Sarkozy proved himself a genius at co-opting the most popular political ideas of his potential opponents. As interior minister, he proved he could exploit fear of immigrants and a widespread sense of public insecurity just as effectively as the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen—long a spoiler in French politics—and without the heavy taint of anti-Semitism that accrued to the National Front. On the left, he brought Socialist stars like Bernard Kouchner into his cabinet. Sarkozy also supported the bid of former Socialist economy minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential presidential contender himself, to be appointed as head of the International Monetary Fund.

Through the intensifying economic crises of the past three months, the Socialists have mustered only feeble criticisms, and sometimes praise, for Sarkozy's policies. In fact, he has proved more compelling a voice for big government and big spending than the traditional left has been. As editorialist Françoise Fressoz noted in Le Monde, the main complaint about his plan to kick-start the economy is that it put too much emphasis on business investment and too little on household income, but still the Socialists "didn't much challenge its usefulness."

As the EU presidency comes to an end on Dec. 31, however, Sarkozy's better nature may be frustrated. In an obvious effort to keep the momentum of his leadership alive, Sarkozy will be hosting a conference the first week of January with Tony Blair and a horde of world-class intellectuals. In April, France is expected to rejoin the unified command of NATO more than 40 years after President Charles de Gaulle pulled out. The occasion will be the 60th anniversary of the alliance, a perfect setting for Sarkozy to create headlines, perhaps even by increasing the French commitment in Afghanistan. He is always ready for the grand gesture, and even if the move is unpopular, there's no well-organized opposition to make him change his mind.

But as Sarkozy grows accustomed to having just about everything his way, he appears to be growing more prickly, not less, about pointed criticism. In a bizarre lawsuit, he went after the makers of a toy "voodoo doll," an effigy of Sarkozy that parodied some of his past rhetoric and provided, along with a sarcastic how-to manual, a dozen needles with which to skewer the doll. In October a judge defended the maker's right to make a joke, but Sarkozy just couldn't take it, and kept on in the courts. Last month another judge ruled in his favor, but allowed the dolls to stay on the market. More disturbing still is the way Sarkozy tries to manipulate France's mainstream media, the last embattled bastion of his critics. As a government minister, his personal calls to reporters who had dared to disrespect him were legendary. His close friendships with media bosses are also well known. How much self-censorship Sarkozy's influence has elicited is unknowable, but, to take one silly example, the weekly picture magazine Paris Match airbrushed away Sarkozy's love handles when he was photographed in a swimsuit on his first summer vacation as president.

Now, rather more seriously, Sarkozy is rewriting the laws governing broadcast media in France: the head of the government networks known as France Télévisions will now be named by the president. And, despite France's massive and worsening public deficit, Sarkozy is seeing through a promise he made earlier this year to phase out advertising from public television. Questions have been raised about how much ad revenue he's going to be putting in the hands of private networks owned by his political allies, but Sarkozy's own explanation is perhaps more revealing. The left, the Socialists, never dared to do the same. "They always talked about it with no results," he said. This move shows what a government can do when it is committed to action, he boasted. If Parliament doesn't pass the controversial bill by early next year, he's signaled he may simply make it a decree.

Whether, in the end, Sarkozy will go down as a man of destiny, or merely of obstinacy and arrogance, only history—and perhaps his fellow European leaders—can decide. The French, for their part, have given him free rein to—well, to reign.

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