France's Thatcher

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | May 9, 2007

“Sarko, the American.” For much of the French presidential campaign, it was an epithet used by the enemies of conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy to suggest that he was not his own man but a handmaiden of Washington.

Instead of complaining, or accusing his detractors of defaming his character, the former Chirac protégé adopted the slogan and wore it as a badge of honor.
Imagine that, a French political leader, proud of being called an American!
That’s just the first of many things that will change when Nicolas Sarkozy takes office on May 16.
Less than seven minutes into his victory speech on election night, Sarkozy sent a message to America.
“I want to launch an appeal to our American friends,” he began to a cheering audience, “that they can count on our friendship, forged in the tragedies of history we have confronted together.”
“I want to tell them that France will be at their sides when they need her. But I also want to tell them that part of friendship is accepting that friends can think differently.”
There was a huge gasp in the room, as the shadow of Jacques Chirac appeared to descend from the ballroom ceiling, threatening to shatter the magic of the renewed France that Sarkozy seemed to embody. But then the French president-elect veered off in an unexpected direction.
He wasn’t about to chastise America over the war in Iraq, or the ongoing war on terror. He wasn’t even going to raise the very real difference he has with President George W. Bush over the entry of Muslim Turkey into the predominantly Christian European Union (Bush favors Turkey’s entry as part of his politically-correct salaam to ‘Islam, religion of peace’; Sarkozy is against).
No, it was about global warming.
“A great nation such as the United States has a duty to not become an obstacle to the struggle against global warming but instead to take the lead in this battle, because what’s at stake is the fate of all humanity,” Sarkozy said. He capped it off by vowing to make the fight against global warming his “first battle” as president.
Before you laugh, be thankful. Sarkozy wasn’t pledging to create a Palestinian state over the bodies of dead Jews, as is predecessor had done. He wasn’t vowing to dislodge America from its super-power status, nor was he demanding that America subordinate its right to self-defense to a show of hands at the United Nations among countries who wish us ill.
Instead, he was calling on America to take a leadership role.  This is a new France, indeed. (And there is more than just puffery in Sarkozy’s choice of global warming as his signal foreign policy issue. Remember that France has some of the most advanced nuclear power technology in the world, and wants to perfect and export 4th generation reactors to developing countries. As he reminded his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, during their two hour mano-a-mano last week, nuclear power is “clean energy” and does not contribute to greenhouse gases.)
But while Sarkozy says there is “much to admire” in America, his real aspiration is to become France’s Thatcher.
Indeed, the task facing Sarkozy is dreadfully similar to the one that faced Margaret Thatcher when she first assumed office in 1979, after decades of disastrous socialist economic and social policies.
Sarkozy inherits an economy with high unemployment, little job mobility, and a massive social welfare state supported by powerful trade unions that fear losing their influence.
Like Britain a generation ago, today more than 50% of the French gross national product is spent by the state. That compares with 42% in today’s Britain and the United States.
Sarkozy has pledged to renew a country demoralized by 12 dismal years of Jacques Chirac, undoubtedly the worst president the French have ever had the misfortune to elect.
The Chirac era was fraught with corruption and baseness of all sorts. If the French were to apply the letter of the law, Chirac could be headed for the housegaw after losing his presidential immunity on corruption charges stemming from his 18 years as mayor of Paris.
(I doubt Sarkozy will allow Chirac to be prosecuted, and personally I think he should pardon him– not because of any love lost for Chirac, but because the French would prefer to forget that Chirac ever existed and don’t want to be reminded of him in the news. Neither should we.)
When Chirac was first elected in 1995, unemployment topped 10%. After spending tens of billions of euros on make-work programs and various social welfare fixes, unemployment still hovers well above 8% even according to the tricked-up official figures, which count young people on job-training internships as full-fledged members of the work force.
Internationally, Chirac steered France into a hysterical, anti-American and anti-Israel alliance, siding with Saddam Hussein against George W. Bush, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah against Israel.
Chirac also alienated Britain’s leaders, adding personal snubs to political hostility, going so far as to show up more than a half hour late to Buckingham palace during a state visit with the Queen.
When anti-Semitic attacks erupted in France after 9/11, Chirac sat on his hands. Sarkozy, newly appointed as Interior Minister, donned a bullet-proof vest and visited the Muslim ghettoes around Paris, warning Muslim leaders to stop preaching violence against Jews.
I believe history will accord Chirac the summary judgment he deserves.
Sarkozy campaigned on a platform of sweeping reforms, pledging to dismantle large portions of the social welfare state and to make France competitive on world markets again.
He pledged to reduce taxes, shrink the size of government and shut down redundant government programs. (Rudy Guilliani was listening, and picked up one of Sarkozy’s key reforms – replacing only one of every two retiring civil servants – just yesterday).
But most importantly, he pledged to “put France back to work.” The French have lost faith in work, he says. “Reviving the work ethic is at the heart of my program.”
Sarkozy dreams of awakening France from generations of sclerosis, just as Margaret Thatcher did Britain a generation ago.
Seventeen years after Mrs. Thatcher left office in 1990, Britain remains the economic engine driving Europe. Even the Labor Party was forced to adopt her reforms.
Hundreds of thousands of young French men and women voted with their feet and emigrated to Britain in search of better pay, lower taxes, and greater freedom to create.
Sarkozy hopes to lure French expats back home by reducing taxes on small businesses, and by making workers more mobile. During last Wednesday’s debate with his Socialist opponent, he called a key Socialist gain, the 35-hour work week, “a widespread catastrophe for the French economy”
In conciliatory remarks aimed at his harshest opponents in the Muslim ghettos around Paris, Sarkozy offered a new job-training program, “a contract, and a paycheck” to unemployed young Muslims and African immigrants.
In a video-taped message that played on his website along with the election victory announcement, he pledged a helping hand “so that all can live in dignity from their work.”
But in exchange, he warned, “I ask them to get up early, because no one can hope to be helped by society if he doesn’t help himself.”
“I want to build a Republic where everyone can succeed,” he added.
Foreign policy played virtually no role in the election campaign. During the more than 2 hour debate with Royal, the United States was not even mentioned once.
The overwhelming emphasis of Sarkozy’s campaign of reforming French political, social, and economic structures will translate into a strong domestic agenda for his presidency. It will be a welcome break from Chirac’s knack for inserting himself wherever he was wanted the least, almost invariably on the side of dictators and tyrants.
Sarkozy frequently evokes the need for a “break” with the past. If he succeeds in his ambitious project of dismantling the social welfare state, he will be hailed as the Margaret Thatcher of France.
And, who knows? There may come a time in the not-so-distant future when Sarkozy will cross the Atlantic to urge his American counterpart not to go “wobbly at the knees,” and like Maggie, pledge his nation’s full support in the worldwide struggle for freedom.
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