Sarkozy’s Pragmatically Optimistic Revolution

John Zvesper

June 1, 2007

As anticipated, the French legislative elections on June 17th left President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party with a healthy majority in the National Assembly. The UMP will hold 55% of the seats. The main opposition party, the PS (Socialist Party), will have 33%. It is also worth noting—and celebrating—the continued decline of the French Communist party (who won less than 3% of the seats) and the National Front (who won none).

Sarkozy helped produce this result by asking a few politicians on the Left to become members of his government. This was brilliant. It was a sign not of weakness, but of strength. It reassured voters that he was not the closed-minded crypto-fascist portrayed by left-wing caricaturists. At the same time it underlined his Reaganesque argument that the political right now embodies principles (e.g. respect for work and constituted authority) abandoned by some—but not everyone—on the Left during the 1960s.

For Sarkozy, this abandonment is symbolized by the demonstrations in Paris in May 1968. Sarkozy criticized the spirit of 1968 during his presidential campaign. He proposed “liquidating” the heritage of 1968.

Paradoxically, therefore, most prominent among the leftists appointed by Sarkozy is the former 68’er, Bernard Kouchner, now Minister of Foreign Affairs. Of course, the President himself has clear constitutional power in this domain, so he is by no means leaving the Republic’s foreign policy to Kouchner. Nevertheless Kouchner holds a very high-profile job (for how long remains to be seen). And there is an important affinity between Sarkozy and Kouchner. They might have been on opposite sides of the barriers in 1968 (but Kouchner was then 28, Sarkozy only 13). However, Kouchner, a medical doctor who co-founded “Doctors without Borders” (and later founded “Doctors of the World”), was much less dreamily romantic than many other 68’ers. He was interested in results, not in self-indulgent revolutionary fantasies. He put his 68’er anti-hierarchical instincts to work by organizing effective humanitarian projects that gave less respect to political borders and rights, and more to the rights of human beings as such, particularly of victims of natural and political disasters.

Like Sarkozy, then, Kouchner is results-oriented—“pragmatic.” At the same time, neither man is cynical. They share an optimistic outlook that does not accept that history has ended. Contrary to 68’er political disenchantment, they both think there is still much good to be done by politicians. (Paul Berman has recently drawn attention to this difference between Kouchner and other 68’ers.) This optimism explains Sarkozy’s otherwise morbid-seeming fascination with French political martyrs like Georges Mandel (the French political leader who declined to get on the plane that carried Charles de Gaulle to London in June 1940, and who was soon after imprisoned and murdered by fascists) and Guy Moquet (another victim of fascism). On his website, Sarkozy tells us that his family taught him “the values of Gaullism: the love of France and the rejection of inevitability.”

Sarkozy’s optimistic rejection of historical inevitability can appear a little mindless (his presidential campaign slogan was “Together everything becomes possible”), but it has to be a healthy breath of fresh air in a country in which political immobilism has become a way of life (and—perhaps not unrelatedly—which leads the world in the per capita consumption of anti-depressants).

The legislative election result was anticipated, but it is nevertheless remarkable. This is only the fourth time in the history of the Fifth Republic that a single party has won an absolute majority in the Assembly. Moreover, not only have the French electorate resisted the urge to confine Sarkozy’s power by electing an Assembly with a left-wing majority. They have also departed from their old habit of declining to return to power incumbent governments, left or right. Sarkozy, who was a government minister for several years during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, has managed to present himself and his party as the choiceworthy alternative to—himself and his party. (Republican Party strategists in the United States are studying this feat, to see how they might imitate it.)

Even some unanticipated features of the legislative electoral results, which many are citing as proof that the Sarkozy revolution has already been significantly set back, can be seen on the contrary as quite promising for his project.

The electoral defeat of Alain Juppé and his consequent disappearance from the government to which Sarkozy had just appointed him, though it looks like a blow against Sarkozy, has the beneficial effect of further distancing Sarkozy from the Chirac regime (in which Juppé was much more closely involved).

The UMP’s legislative majority is not as big as many had been predicting. Some predictions had gone as high as 66%. In fact, their 55% of the seats is a decline from their previous level of 62%, and the 33% of the PS is an increase on their previous 26%. This, too, has been cited as a bad omen for the Sarkozy revolution. Of course, before the elections, Sarkozy himself was heard suggesting that a legislative majority could be too large as well as too small, if it reduced the solidarity of the majority party. Still, an absolute reduction in the UMP’s numbers in the National Assembly was hardly what he had in mind.

Even so, Sarkozy can take some comfort by reflecting on the way that the Left managed to pull off this minor “victory.” The issue that they relied on was the disclosure by one of Sarkozy’s new government appointees that the government were to consider raising the rate of value added sales tax (in order to finance planned cuts in payroll taxes). The plan was to have been discussed next year, and the disclosure now was an error. But the main lesson to be learned is that such proposals have to be fully discussed, rather than being announced from on high. Besides, Sarkozy might reflect, when a socialist party appeals to voters’ opposition to taxes—however much it presents this appeal as a struggle against the rich—it risks encouraging voters to question socialism.

The “victory” celebrations of the PS (they had done less badly than expected) on the evening of June 17th were interrupted by the astonishing public confirmation by Ségolène Royal (the Socialist candidate who lost to Sarkozy) that she and her domestic partner François Hollande (the PS leader) have been living separately for some time. She said she had asked him to leave their home to live out his emotional life (i.e. his affair) elsewhere. Watch this woman. She will be back. She has been criticized left and right as a lightweight, but what that means is that she has avoided making too much of her party’s doctrines because she realizes that traditional socialism is an electoral handicap. She may well be able to get her party to acknowledge this between now and the next presidential election (in 2012). She will certainly try.

However, the PS is currently full of traditional socialists (as elsewhere in the world, in France the “conservatives” are more revolutionary than many leftists) who had trouble accepting Royal as their candidate, and they will continue to have trouble accepting her as their leader (she is clearly aiming to replace Hollande in that job). In short, the Socialist party will continue their internal struggles and identity crises for some time.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy will be able to work with his legislative majority quickly to transform his legislative program into laws. Sarkozy has taken the risk of taking direct responsibility for his government’s policies, unlike previous Fifth Republic presidents, who have generally let their prime ministers be the fall guys when things went wrong. Sarkozy’s first hundred days in office should show whether his superactive executive energy will inspire more hope than fear in French citizens. The legislative election result left him no excuses for failure. But Sarkozy himself knows that nothing is inevitable, especially not success.

John Zvesper, an American living in Europe, is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a Fellow of the Claremont Institute.