The American Legion Magazine
Alan W. Dowd
As he took the helm of the French Republic in May, Nicolas Sarkozy went out of his way to deliver a special message to his “American friends.” In a striking departure from the chilly attitude toward Washington that characterized the words and actions of his predecessor, Sarkozy declared that “France will always be by their side when they need her,” adding that “friendship is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently.”
In other words, Sarkozy won’t always fall in line behind this president or the next. But he promises to be an improvement over Jacques Chirac.
Where Chirac seemed to embody France’s postwar inferiority complex, Sarkozy exudes self-confidence. Where Chirac offered knee-jerk anti-Americanism, Sarkozy offers admiration. Where Chirac dreamed of forging a counterweight to the U.S., Sarkozy sees a confluence of interests.
Sarkozy the Self-Confident
A self-described “man of action,” Sarkozy first made news on this side of the Atlantic during the social unrest that roiled several Paris ghettos in 2005. Even as Chirac called for “dialogue,” Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, wielded emergency powers to restore law and order. “The people responsible will be arrested and punished,” he intoned, drawing both praise and criticism for calling the rioters “rabble.”
It was an early indication that Sarkozy would be different than other French politicians. Further proof of that came during his presidential bid, when he challenged French immigration policies, declaring that France could not be “home for all the world’s miseries;” condemned the 1968 student revolts in France; called for tax-slashing economic reforms; heaped scorn on France’s left-wing parties for siding with “thugs, troublemakers and fraudsters;” and even requested a meeting and photo-op with President George W. Bush, whose approval rating is far lower in France than it is in America. [i]
Spurred by soaring poll numbers and a solid legislative majority, Sarkozy has moved quickly on several fronts as president, standing up for French firms by striking references to “free and undistorted” competition in a new European Union treaty,[ii] blocking progress on Turkey’s future membership in the EU, pushing for a more balanced dollar-euro exchange rate and pressing the U.S. on global warming.
But he is focusing most of his energies on challenges inside France, especially the country’s limping economy. Sarkozy takes over one of Europe’s weakest economies, with a growth rate of barely 2 percent and an unemployment rate of almost 9 percent. As an analysis conducted by The American Enterprise magazine detailed in 2005:
-Government spending accounts for 54 percent of France’s GDP;
-Just 52 percent of the French population is working; and
-Per capita economic output in France is just 73 percent of per capita output in the U.S.[iii]
To remedy these ills, Sarkozy has proposed exempting overtime earnings from taxation, virtually eliminating the inheritance tax, capping individual taxes at 50 percent, granting employers more flexibility in firing employees and reducing the number of public-sector employees through attrition.
Perhaps motivated by the 2005 riots, Sarkozy also promises to craft a “controlled” immigration policy and an “ambitious” development policy.[iv]
“The domestic agenda is moving nicely,” says Kenneth Weinstein, CEO of Hudson Institute and an expert on French and European politics. He notes that Sarkozy was so eager to get things done that he was pushing major reforms “when everyone else in France was on vacation.”
In light of his ambitious plans, Sarkozy’s critics have mockingly called him “minister of everything.”[v] But one suspects the high-energy Sarkozy wears this label with pride.
Sarkozy the American
Another intended putdown Sarkozy wears with pride is “Sarkozy the American.” Indeed, a New York Times analysis of the new French leader called him “unabashedly pro-American.”[vi]
Sarkozy himself has explained, “I have no intention of apologizing for feeling an affinity for the greatest democracy in the world.” Invoking memories of the postwar partnership that forged NATO and rescued West Berlin, he calls himself an Atlanticist and promises “to rebuild the transatlantic relationship.”[vii]
This is a refreshing departure from Chirac, whose zero-sum foreign policy elevated the EU at the expense of transatlantic ties. Sarkozy, like Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Angela Merkel, believes in a strong EU and a strong partnership with Washington.
“Chirac was obsessive about counterbalancing the U.S.,” Weinstein explains. “Sarkozy does not believe that the French national interest requires opposing the U.S. on a regular basis.” He calls Sarkozy “a true friend of the U.S.”
Sarkozy certainly acts the part. He waxes almost romantic about America, citing George Washington, Rochambeau and Yorktown; Elvis, Sinatra and Madonna; Hemingway, blue jeans and burgers; and of course, the twin wars that left deep scars on his country and continent. “When a young American soldier dies anywhere else in the world,” he said in 2006, “I can’t help but think that he has the same face as one who came to die for us in 1917 or 1944.”
He has even conceded what most Americans have sensed for decades—that the French elites’ reaction to America “reflects a certain envy, not to say jealousy, of your brilliant success.”
Although he opposed the war in Iraq, Sarkozy has made it clear that he would not have acted like Chirac, who dispatched his foreign minister to organize an international opposition against Washington.
“You must have loathed us at that time,” he has observed, adding that “It’s not appropriate to try to embarrass one’s allies.”
Sarkozy the Partner
Yet that’s exactly what Chirac did before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. According to Weinstein, “It is unimaginable that Sarkozy would send his foreign minister around the globe to thwart U.S. foreign policy.”
In fact, even as Chirac undermined Washington’s diplomatic efforts at the UN and military plans in Iraq, Sarkozy was trying to maintain the transatlantic bridge. A Newsweek analysis concluded that “quiet but effective cooperation between Paris and Washington in counterterrorism reached new heights during Sarkozy’s two terms as interior minister.”
Quite unlike his predecessor, Sarkozy recognizes the great confluence of interests that unite France and the U.S., especially in a post-9/11 world. Sarkozy outlined these in late 2006:
-Fighting global terrorism and disrupting the proliferation of WMDs;
-Responding to humanitarian disasters and rebuilding failed states;
-Spreading democracy “throughout the world;” and
-Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state.[viii]
He calls Iran “an outlaw nation,” citing its support for Hezbollah and its refusal to accept the historical reality of the Holocaust. “The prospect of such a regime armed with weapons as destructive as nuclear missiles is terrifying,” Sarkozy observes.
On the eve of the election, Sarkozy declared a nuclear Iran “unacceptable and dangerous.” Soon after his election victory, he called for tighter sanctions on Iran and closed ranks with the U.S. in a formal protest of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency. ElBaradei recently undercut the West’s anti-nuclear efforts in Iran by recommending that Tehran be allowed to enrich uranium.[ix]
As to the likely target of Iran’s arsenal, Sarkozy openly defends “the right of Israel to protect itself against external aggression, particularly when it takes the form of blind and cowardly acts of terrorism.” Without a note of moral relativism, he even blamed Hezbollah for the 2006 war in lower Lebanon.[x]
Contrast this with Sarkozy’s predecessor or with his opponent in the 2007 election, Segolene Royal. Chirac visited Yasser Arafat’s deathbed and called the lifelong terrorist “a man of courage and conviction.” Royal commiserated with a Hezbollah lawmaker and agreed with his view that Bush suffered from “unlimited dementia.”
Moreover, as Weinstein observes, “Sarkozy deeply cares about human rights, in Russia, in China and around the globe.” This, too, represents a departure from Chiracism and a welcome realignment with Washington.
But Sarkozy will not always march in lockstep with Washington. For example, he opposes Turkey’s entry into the EU. “Turkey is not a European country,” he bluntly concluded earlier this year. Yet Washington has urged the EU to accelerate Turkey’s application into the economic club.[xi]
He suggested in April that he would withdraw French forces from Afghanistan, although he reversed himself in June, promising “our Canadian and American friends that we will not break the allies’ solidarity in the battle that is underway against terrorism in Afghanistan.”[xii]
On global climate change, Sarkozy has challenged the United States “to wake up and make this a battle for the protection of our planet.” He dismissed Bush’s recent proposal for industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gases as “not sufficient.”
As Weinstein explains, “Sarkozy is not really a new Tony Blair. He will expect more from the U.S. than Tony Blair did.”
The good news is that Washington can expect more from Sarkozy’s France than it did from Chirac’s.
[i] See Henry Samuel, “Sarkozy attacks immoral heritage of 1968,” London Telegraph, May 1, 2007; CNN, “Sarkozy: I have a mandate for change,” May 7, 2007; Elaine Sciolino, “Sarkozy outlines foreign policy,” International Herald Tribune, February 28, 2007.
[ii]See AP, “Sarkozy lauds new EU treaty as safeguard for workers, bane for unbridled competition,” International Herald Tribune, June 22, 2007.
[iii]See “Endangered Europe,” The American Enterprise, October-December 2005.
[iv]CNN, “Sarkozy: I have a mandate for change,” May 7, 2007;
[v] Katrin Bennhold, “Sarkozy shifts his focus to foreign policy,” International Herald Tribune, May 31, 2007.
[vi] Elaine Sciolino, “With Sarkozy, Bush may find a close friend in France,” New York Times, May 7, 2007.
[vii] See Embassy of France, “Visit to the US of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy,” http://www.ambafrance-us.org/, September 12, 2006; Christopher Dickey, “New French President Favors Stronger U.S. Ties,” Newsweek, May 6, 2007.
[viii] See Embassy of France, “Visit to the US of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy,” http://www.ambafrance-us.org/, September 12, 2006.
[ix] AP, “France’s Sarkozy calls to tighten sanctions on Tehran,” Jerusalem Post, May 23, 2007.
[x] See Embassy of France, “Visit to the US of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy,” http://www.ambafrance-us.org/, September 12, 2006; Yaniv Schleer, “Sarkozy: Israel has right to protect itself,” Jerusalem Post, May 2, 2007.
[xi] Elaine Sciolino, “Sarkozy outlines foreign policy,” International Herald Tribune, February 28, 2007.
[xii] Reuters, “Sarkozy says French troops to stay in Afghanistan,” June 8, 2007.