The Corner

Superman?

If you’re interested in the French elections and Europe’s prospects, the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs has a couple of articles worth reading. (The issue hasn’t yet been mounted on the web, and most of it will be subscriber restricted.) Sophie Pedder reviews Nicolas Sarkozy’s new book, Testimony, and in an important piece called “Healthy Old Europe,” Nicholas Eberstadt and Hans Groth advance our ongoing debate over the West’s changing demographics. (Here’s the Op-Ed version of the longer Eberstadt-Groth article.)

Although Jonah’s been less hard on the French of late, Sarkozy’s Testimony is liable to deliver a shock to any Cornerite’s system. Sarkozy sounds almost too good to be true. That’s partly because Testimony extracts Sarkozy’s most pro-American writings, and so is not entirely representative. Despite his free market talk, Sarkozy is more statist than American conservatives, he favors affirmative action for immigrants, and the campaign has forced him to backtrack on some of his pro-American foreign policy rhetoric. For all that, Sarkozy is still a new kind of French politician: openly pro-American, viscerally anti-leftist (Sarkozy’s father was a refugee from communist Hungary), a critic of the welfare state, and unwilling to tolerate lawlessness by France’s rebellious suburban immigrants.

The question is whether even a Sarkozy win will be enough to spark real reform. Sarkozy’s hopes for paring back France’s bloated welfare state likely outrun the expectations of even his own supporters. And disaffected immigrants in France’s suburbs are already claiming that “if Sarko wins, there’ll be riots.” So a Sarkozy victory is less likely to signal quick reform than it is to initiate a difficult and conflicted period of testing, which may or may not ultimately result in significant change. The huge turnout for the first round of voting portends a sharp left/right debate to come. Both sides understand that the fate of Europe’s social model could hang in the balance.

Given the likely electoral polarization, even a Sarkozy victory followed by moves at reform may set up a confrontation with the left, which could pour onto the streets early in Sarkozy’s term in an effort to block serious change. Will Sarkozy hold back and avoid confrontation by pushing reform only gradually? Will he boldly take on his opponents? Or will even baby-steps toward change spark massive protests, as did mild attempts at labor market reform did only recently?

Here is where the “Healthy Old Europe” article comes in. Eberstadt and Groth argue that, despite its rapidly declining fertility rate, Europe can avoid demographic disaster only by putting its notably healthy oldsters to work. Rather than import still more Muslim immigrants, Europe might avoid, or at least mitigate, its economic and cultural troubles by asking its large and physically robust cohort of 50 and 60 year-olds to keep working.

The trouble is that Europeans, although healthier and more long-lived, are working less and less. (You’ve got to believe that shorter work weeks and all those vacations help explain the relative health of Europe’s oldsters.) Between the 1960′s and 2000, the life expectancy of French men rose by eight years, while the retirement age fell by seven years. Check out this article on “The Paradoxical French Electorate,” which features a train engineer scheduled to retire at age 56. Eberstadt and Groth explain that the only way for Europe to avert demographic and/or cultural disaster is to get folks like this engineer to retire later. This may be exactly what Sarkozy has in mind. But try telling that to this engineer, who I bet would join his fellow state employees in a huge public protest against anything that would seriously delay his retirement.

Victory for Royal means the French economic freight train will remain on track toward a precipitous fall off a cliff. Victory for Sarkozy will send a super-hero flying to the front of the runaway train. Will Super-Sarko manage to stop that train before it falls into the English Channel? Will he even seriously try? Stay tuned for the next episode.

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