Politics & Policy

D.C. in a Sarko Second

A New York minute is an eternity to the fast-action man from France.

In the amount of time it took you to wash the car and watch the game this weekend, Nicolas Sarkozy, the suddenly single Hungarian now in charge of all France, jetted off to troubled Chad and came back home again with a trio of French journalists and a quartet of flight attendants. Then he went to dinner.

The seven had been nabbed by authorities in N’djamena after a French NGO — Zoe’s Ark, a for-the-children scam described in Le Monde by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, no stranger to humanitarian causes, as a “rogue” charity engaged in a “sad adventure” — scooped up more than 100 children and tried to fly them out of the country. The charity claimed they were orphans, but, as an International Herald Tribune report notes, their irate families strenuously demurred, so the Chadian government tossed the activists in jail — along with the journalists and flight attendants. (The paper, owned by the New York Times, also notes that 20 percent of African kids won’t live to age five because of diseases such as malaria — without pointing out that Times is among those who originally supported environmentalists in their successful but lethal call for a ban on DDT.)

By dinnertime, Sarkozy was back in Paris packing for his trip to the U.S., perhaps while watching a film on M6’s “66 Minutes” (an American hour at current exchange rates) made by one of the journalists he had rescued. The Chad mission was quick work, even for France’s jog-crazy president. “It’s his temperament,” explained Kouchner to TF-1. “When he’s interested in a story and thinks he can do something [constructive], he does it.”

Sarkozy’s everywhere these days, like Dick Orkin’s Chickenman of yore, a high-speed, hard-working politician distinctly foreign in a country that the New York Times’s Elaine Sciolino perhaps ironically described as “frozen” because French people could not get to their 35-hour-a-week jobs for a day or two during a transit strike. The strike was billed as the first big challenge to Sarkozy’s economic reforms, but the effect was less-than-devastating — sort of like wondering how people in L.A. are going to get to work this morning now that the comedy writers are all on strike. Sarko’s domestic problems are not yet behind him. Pessimists, like this editorialist in Le Figaro, think the worst is yet to come — in Paris, that is; it can’t get worse in Los Angeles — and they’re probably right.

When Sarkozy arrives in Washington, it’ll be déja-vu deluxe, since the capital, politically, resembles no place as much as Paris, 2006. He’ll meet with the American Chirac, an embattled, often incomprehensible president who is pitied by some and despised by many, leading a party rich in cynical corruption that many think has failed its own principles miserably. Meanwhile, a leftish opposition reminiscent of the French Socialists rallies around a putative leader who embodies, literally, all the old, tired reasons why there was never a president named Gore or Kerry. On Tuesday, we’ll all be treated to the interesting spectacle of a French politician urging an American Congress packed with nervous pacifists to somehow discover enough courage to defend the interests of the civilized West in a fight against Islamic terrorism.

When he meets with Bush, he’ll have to talk as fast as he moves if he’s going to hit all the topics he needs to cover — starting with a foreign-exchange imbalance that makes a French Bic a luxury item in Chicago and a Jeep an impulse buy in Avignon. The argument against a weak dollar is that it raises the price of gas in the U.S. But as finance minister Christine Lagarde, who will be one of the cabinet members accompanying Sarkozy, inadvertently notes in a report in Le Blog Finance, it could be worse: French exports may suffer because the dollar’s weak, but the lucky French only have to pay $7 a gallon for gas, instead of $8.

The U.S. will press France (and Germany, when Chancellor Angela Merkel visits later this week) to help deal with Russia and to give greater support to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. Sarkozy has hinted that France may seek to rejoin NATO’s military structure — a terrifying thought to French leftists like Hubert Védrine worrying, in l’Humanité, about all those neocons and their “idiotic” wars. But it’s Iran that is most likely to be a subject of shared concern. Chirac was addled on the problem of an Iran armed with nukes. Sarkozy’s view on the other hand is refreshingly clear: A nuclear Iran is a threat to the world. In the past Sarkozy’s (and Kouchner’s) language on this topic has been even more blunt than Bush’s and is a long way from the sort of wet cringing we used to get from Paris.

In fact, as the IHT pointed out last week, the French now make more sense to us than the sanctimonious post-Blair Brits. Max Hastings for example explains to the Guardian’s anguished readers something they must have always suspected: “The rival governments in Tehran and Washington deserve each other,” just as The Guardian’s readers certainly deserve Hastings, as the comments show. As I understand it, his view is that we should avoid provoking the Iranians and opt instead for a defense built on a robust and vigorous wringing of hands. These long, solution-free, complaint-rich “analyses” — usually involving a little name-calling and a shotgunned insult or two — have been a staple of the Guardian’s opinion columns for a very long time. They seem lately to have diminished, but only by a little, in the French press.

(Some French things may never change, however: According to a somewhat disingenuous AFP report, Paris has not given up completely on strategies based on self-serving silliness. At a ceremony attended by Al Gore, who, following his Nobelization in Stockholm, has become a sort of Mother Teresa for trees, Sarkozy urged the EU to “examine the option of taxing products imported from countries that do not respect the Kyoto Protocol.” Of course, France is among the many EU nations who signed Kyoto, but have persistently — or, as Sarkozy might say, disrespectfully — ignored it in favor of economic stability. One suspects that the call for a “carbon” tariff is aimed perhaps more at the currency imbalance than a “respect” for Kyoto.)

It should be an interesting 48 hours in D.C. for Sarko and the media. After jumping into a boat filled with annoying, intrusive journos during his vacation in New England last summer, Sarkozy last week walked out on 60 Minutes after Leslie Stahl insisted on asking him about his marital grief. Most Americans cheered him, but the European press, including the correspondent for London’s Times, was stunned. American media types were appalled, too, of course: Some political publicist on Fox News was heard urging Sarkozy to immediately apologize to everyone — but especially to his official spokesman, whom he had called an “imbecile.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he did what he’ll do when he leaves Washington mid-week: He went back to work — overtime, double-time, jogging by day, wifeless at night, the oddest, most interesting politician in France, and, at least on Tuesday, our new best friend in Europe.

Denis Boyles, author of Vile France and the upcoming Superior, Nebraska.

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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