Monday, April 30, 2007

An American in Paris

I can hardly believe what I am seeing out of the City of Light. Here is Nicolas Sarkozy, whom I am falling for more and more with every passing day despite a previous spasm of doubt, on the campaign trail yesterday (from The Daily Telegraph):
He summoned memories of the student revolt of 1968, saying: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all."

If elected, Mr. Sarkozy promised to break with the "cynicism" of the "gauche caviars", who he blamed for a crisis of "morality, authority, work and national identity". Citing the recent mini-riot in Gare du Nord, he repeated his accusation that the Left "systematically takes the side of thugs, troublemakers and fraudsters against the police".

1968 was a turbulent year in the U.S., with, among other things, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. I can dimly recall from my childhood in the 1970s that my parents had saved a copy of Life magazine (a weekly then) devoted to that incredible year. But we had nothing on France, where the “revolt” of 1968 was devastating, with the country shut down for weeks on account of student protesters, despite their ignorance about the ways of the world. No less a leader than Charles De Gaulle was shoved aside by the thuggery of "the people," and the New Left moved into power with even more devastating effect there than here, with France’s stagnation and ethnoreligious turmoil the primary result a generation later.

But Mr. Sarkozy is talking truly amazing talk. I assume that "gauche caviars" is the French equivalent of "limousine liberal," and to take on the cherished totems of the left this way – on economics, on integration, on the social model – is remarkable. He talks like a fire-breathing American conservative. His opponent has predictably tried to paint him as a Bush clone, but the attacks seem to be bouncing off ineffectively.

Many people predict that the French are too attached to their social model to make meaningful change, and I myself have long believed this. But the way Mr. Sarkozy is campaigning and the language he is using at crunch time now suggest to me that he is serious. Assuming he has the political strength, I anticipate him to try to make major change, especially on labor rigidities, probably the most compelling of the big three (along with high taxes and unemployment benefits) economic deficiencies of France. I also anticipate that his biggest challenge, the one that may deprive him of the political oxygen his fire desperately needs, will come from the suburbs. I expect an angry, riotous challenge to arise thence to meet him very soon after his inauguration; how he handles it will determine the success of his grand vision for a new France.



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