Politics & Policy

French Lessons

Sarkozy's win is a pedagogical windfall for the GOP.

As you know by now, Nicolas Sarkozy was the winner of yesterday’s French presidential election. Ségolene Royal, Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent, conceded defeat Sunday night just after 8 P.M. in Paris. You can watch the speech — and Ségo’s perfect overbite — on Le Figaro’s site. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor of Le Monde, waited until this morning to concede defeat in his melancholy editorial. Of the two statements, Royal’s was the more artful and certainly the more appealing. Meanwhile, the rest of the European press, laments Libération, seems to feel about Sarkozy’s win the way most French people do.

The results are spectacular when you consider the broad outlines of the race: An outsider taking on the Fifth Republic’s establishment and defeating an enormously charming, well-connected candidate who promised what the French have always wanted from their governments — more plush upholstery to cushion life’s sometimes rough ride — and who had the temerity to suggest that the best way to get something was to work for it. That idea alone should have sent chills through a nation whose leading postwar labor theoretician has been Maynard G. Krebs. But Sarkozy won in a landslide and America’s Republican hopefuls should look at some of the reasons why.

He ran on ideas — and stuck with them. The arc of an American political idea is a short, haphazard series of hops. If it isn’t deflected by the media or by the opposition, the result’s a happy surprise. For Sarkozy, the campaign was a straight-ahead march to a goal. He had specific solutions for specific problems — including some of France’s most intractable — and he stuck by them no matter what. He didn’t allow his ideas to become swamped in sentiment. While Royal decorated her campaign in frilly sentiment and feel-good nonsense, Sarkozy remained tough. He convinced France his ideas really mattered to him, that without them, he seemed to see no point in winning. They had little to do with party traditions and a lot to do with the problems the French see everywhere they look.

He reflected common sense. Sarkozy’s specific points seemed to be part of a comprehensible view of recent history, one that most French understood clearly. An example: His assault on the cult of irresponsibility. As the Daily Telegraph reported last week, he attacked one of the most cherished totems of the French Left’s faith — the “heritage of May 1968” — the days of chic student “rage” that brought a weak government to its knees. The French by now know exactly how Sarkozy feels about allowing street legislators to determine government policy. Forever, we’ve been told the French fear reform. They don’t, but it’s a qualitative issue: They simply dislike the cowardly élite’s persistent appeasement of stone-throwing “reformers.” Sarkozy’s main issues are common-sense issues — precisely the ones the kids in the street can’t abide. He’s given a clear signal that he’s even less inclined to back down from them than he was from the Socialists.

He pushed the media out of the driver’s seat. French men and women are no more likely to read Le Monde than Americans are to read the New York Times. Yet both papers represent a media influence that can only exist if it’s recognized by those it targets. Sarkozy simply ignored what the French press assumed the campaign should be about — the enshrinement of the 35-hour week or Le Pen or whatever — and stayed on-topic. Sarkozy’s campaign wasn’t without missteps and stupid comments. But he resisted the instinct to inflate their importance and remained presidential, no matter what. This played well with voters who understand the press is a mob of incestuous hysterics, but who resent it when politicians become their enablers. The media-driven political culture of America drives strong men to tears in a bleeding heartbeat: The slightest offense becomes the subject of long, drawn-out apologies that work best as a slow-acting toxin because it only causes voters to despise them. Sarkozy rarely spent more than a few hours on defense. If that’s not enough, he seemed to be saying, too bad.

He didn’t give credence to constituency issues that weren’t his own. As her campaign seemed to falter, Royal became much more strident about running as a woman. I confess that I am among those who thought this would cause Sarkozy to soften his position and his presentation, fatally. But while the vote-for-me-because-I’m-a-woman gambit was something that might have gone down well in, say, 1968, today it just turns off women, according to poll results — and this report in the Sunday Times. Since the candidate of the American Left will necessarily be part of one minority constituency or many — a woman, an African-American, a gay union guy, a lesbian, all the above if you’re from New Jersey — a wise Republican will learn from Sarko and not make somebody else’s constituency-juggling his problem and instead leave the pandering to the opposition.

He ignored meaningless noise. There were plenty of distractions available to Sarkozy — notably, the campaign by the UDF’s “centrist,” François Bayrou, who, in the course of a single campaign, went from John Anderson to Ross Perot to Ralph Nader. Sarkozy neither chased Bayrou nor modified his views to grab for Bayrou’s supporters. The result was a clear mandate for change, and the relegation of Bayrou to the fourth circle of political hell, whence he came.

He prohibited cynicism. This is the first French political campaign in a long time that didn’t feature a good deal of Yank-bashing on both sides. Modern French politicians have learned that when you have nothing good to say about an idea, say something bad about a “friend.” The resulting clip will have the look and feel of a real idea, when in fact it’s just cynical posturing. Sarkozy kept the campaign focused on the ideas he held close, and one of those ideas was that France should grow up and get real about global politics. I was struck watching his acceptance speech, reported here by the Guardian, that one of the most rousing cheers followed his comment that America could “count on our friendship” even when there were differences. It certainly drew more applause than his attempt to soothe the fears of Europhiles.

He ran from losers. It’s unimaginable that a French presidential candidate would have ventured to have his picture taken shaking George Bush’s hand, yet Sarko did it and lived to tell the tale. It’s not something a Republican candidate should risk, however. Sometimes, in a political campaign, as Bush discovered in 2004, your opponent can be your greatest asset. Royal ran a weak campaign, but people liked her even if they didn’t vote for her. It was Sarkozy’s other opponent that gave him an unintended boost. The whole country knew that Jacques Chirac hated Sarkozy and that Sarkozy thought Chirac was a fraud; they knew Villepin and the whole UMP establishment was uncomfortable with Sarko. Even though he ran a campaign that had more in common with the UDP than with the Socialists, he was smart enough to know that the biggest asset he had was the enmity of Chirac, and he knew that the biggest mistake he could make would be to court the support of a president from his own party. He refused to do it, and the nation loved him for it. After all, most French voters think Chirac is a hopelessly inept and cynical loser — sort of the way most Americans, including many conservatives, feel about George W. Bush. The smart Republican candidate will make Bush his Chirac.

On May 16, Sarkozy will move into the Elysée Palace and the despised Jacques Chirac will move into hiding. Between now and then, the brain-fatigued legions of the Left — smaller in number than ever — will take to the streets, as they already did last night around the Place de la Bastille and elsewhere, in an effort to make their political ideas a little more concrete, literally. As Royal promised, her defeat has already unleashed violence — 367 burned cars, 270 arrests, according to France 24.

Between now and the legislative elections in June — elections Sarkozy must win in order to implement the reforms he’s promised — most of the streets of Paris will become unpaved ruts, the mob-ruled suburbs will once again make parking easy to find and the dullards in the press will make cheap shots about his height and draw inane parallels with Napoleon. But one reason people turned out in record numbers to vote this time in France was because they’re tired of this, tired of a country ruled by élitists and their spoiled children, government-employed Marxists and sundry Trotskyites demanding handouts in return for civic tranquility. As I watched the votes being counted in one of the small villages not far from where I live, a man said to me, “Perhaps now it will be different.” If the Republicans learn from Sarko, in 2008 Americans might be saying the same.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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