Thursday, 20 September 2007

Sarkozy's revolution

Gotta love business trips since it gives you time to read the newspaper. Cover. to. cover!

So I found this interesting article in the Herald Tribune. Some food for thought (am too tired to comment after a long day of pretending to know something about European agricultural and biodiversity policy!):

The French Revolution of 2007 has not seen heads roll, but it has involved the destruction of 10 taboos as President Nicolas Sarkozy assumes the role of Europe's most dynamic leader.

1. The American Taboo. Enthusiasm for the United States was unacceptable for a French political leader because always interpreted as an embrace of "Wild West" capitalism, "Anglo-Saxon" hegemony and vulgarity. De rigueur attitudes held sway: patronizing contempt in Paris met macho derision in Washington. Communication suffered. Sarko's New Hampshire vacation, enthused American dreaming, iPod-accompanied jogging and in-your-face style cleared the air.

2. The Agricultural Taboo. No French president could show he was uncomfortable patting the backside of a cow. This gesture, at the annual Paris Agricultural Fair, communicated a leader's link to the land and to deepest France. The only cows known to Sarko, city dweller par excellence, are on cheese packages. The "vache" political credential is dead; French urban politicos no longer feel cowed.

3. The Money Taboo. "To live happy, live hidden" goes a French saying. Few things were more hidden than contacts between presidents and the rich. François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac had well-heeled friends, but, knowing the French tend to think that wealth equals theft, or something close, they kept these ties quiet. Sarkozy, with his Rolexes and penchant for the yachts of millionaire friends, has broadcast the message that money's O.K.

4. The Cultural Taboo. To run France you had to be cultured or pretend to be. Mitterrand's bookish references and Delphic utterances ("A president must know how to be bored") positioned him as too clever to contest. Chirac had a recherché passion for Japan. Culture - like cows, but on a different level - connected the president to the Gallic eternal. Sarko, an American movie buff, is more at home with Johnny Hallyday than Jean-Paul Sartre.

5. The Mideast Taboo. Strong French ties and traditions in the Middle East dictated coolness toward Israel. Chirac let slip that an Iranian nuclear bomb might be acceptable, before saying he'd misspoken. Now Sarkozy, forthright in his support of Israel, declares that "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran" may be the terrible choice looming, and his foreign minister says the world should "prepare for the worst" in Iran, meaning "war." Iran is no Arab country but these utterances betray a changed "politique Arabe."

6. The Russian Taboo. Moscow was France's offsetting power to the United States. For many Cold-War years, the French left struggled to decide what was worse: Soviet totalitarianism or American "imperialism." Some of the French right was undecided, too. Later, Chirac suggested "neoliberalism" - unfettered market forces - was as much a danger in the 21st century as totalitarianism in the 20th. Weak-kneed moral equivalency often placed Paris in a half-way house between Washington and Moscow. Sarkozy is clear: American democracy beats Russian authoritarianism, just as U.S. freedom beat Soviet enslavement.

7. The Work Taboo. Working hard to get rich was un-Gallic. Working less - a 35-hour week - to feel happy (in theory) was French. Sarkozy now praises those who "get up early." In the land of "I think, therefore I am," his finance minister declares: "Enough of thought! Let's roll up our sleeves." Sarkoland's slogan: "I work, therefore I am."

8. The Far-Right Taboo. For decades Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front prospered on an untouchable flank. Sarkozy has undermined this bigoted party with some bigotry of his own about French "national identity" and a campaign to deport illegal immigrants. At the same time, he's been franker than the left about France's problem with immigrants and promoted the daughter of a Moroccan laborer, Justice Minister Rachida Dati, to high office.

9. The NATO Taboo. There's talk of France rejoining the integrated military command of the Alliance, unthinkable since Charles de Gaulle hauled the country out in a huff in 1966.

10. The Ivy League Taboo. The passport to government office was always attendance of the swanky Ecole Nationale d'Administration, or ENA, where future ministers acquired the mind-numbing skill of saying they had seven points to make and remembering all seven without notes. Sarko loathes such Ivy-League clubbiness. He prefers an egghead-free government.

The bulk of this taboo-smashing is positive because it has stripped away paralyzing French hypocrisy, opened the way for unfettered French-American discussion and cleared a possible path to tackling chronic high unemployment.

The calculated use of anti-immigrant rhetoric is troubling and I'm worried by the loose talk on Iran. But I'll go on embracing Sarkozy while waiting to see if he's a revolutionary in action, as well as in words and style.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this article. Now that I can watch the France 2 evening newscast on my non-cable television here in the US (the magic of HDTV, picking up a random "international" channel), lists like this are starting to make sense. (Even the Denver papers don't allot much coverage to French politics, and I rarely read the news online.) It's interesting to see different perspectives.

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