In recent years my visits to the United States were a breath of fresh air. Free at last! I loved that high octane American energy. Free enterprise, good business, high-tech low prices, and darling waiters who walk up to the table, smile sincerely, and say I’m Jennifer, I’m your waitress today, enjoy your meal. Sassy sweet talk with black folks, bright think tanks, brilliant friends and colleagues with their fingers on every burning question and their sons and daughters fighting for us in Iraq, and everyone asking me when I’m pulling up stakes and coming back home. Back in Paris after each long rich stay in the U.S. I would sputter and complain about everything…except the food, which I would enjoy immensely while trying to deny its hands down superiority.
This time it was hard to tear myself away from la France nouvelle, la France sous Sarkozy. Like going on a trip when you’d just redone the kitchen…or the bougainvillea is blooming in the window boxes. Paris was alive with such long-delayed hope. Even if disappointment is just around the corner the experience was edifying. The meaning of leadership sings out from every inch of the land. This is the secret of community; individuals are supple and distinct, they can rise and fall to great heights and depths, change in an instant, fly off to incredible adventures or walk around the same block for a lifetime, but collectivities can’t be dynamic without leadership. They aren’t self-propelled.
France has been going downhill slowly for decades; the last seven years were the worst. The society was in a freeze frame for all that is positive, on fast forward for the negative, and boiling with obsessive hatred of Israel, Jews, and America. An entrenched president and successive PMs aggravated the domestic situation with a counterproductive foreign policy. France crowed about peace on the international stage while people became more and more aggressive in day to day reality.
Now the streets are dancing with Sarkozy energy. Liberation! A snooty article in Le Monde used the adjective “white” to describe the election night crowd at Place de la Concorde. No PC for honkies. When Chirac beat Le Pen with more than 80% of the vote in 2002, the victory celebrations were multicolor and so were the flags– Algerian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and a smattering of Hizbullah yellows.
The anti-Sarkos believe they have a divine right to overthrow the duly elected government but they have another think coming. The usual smashing, torching, blocking, and attacking met with a new kind of resistance. Hundreds were arrested, a few are already in jail. Students voted to shut down the Tolbiac branch of the Universit√© de Paris. The rector closed the university and said she wouldn’t reopen until students rescinded the blockade. Left wing media started whipping up allegations of police brutality; on the other hand law keepers are not getting their heads bashed with rocks. That’s a net improvement.
The Socialists keep claiming they’ve got their act together…and then semi-privately air their differences. It’s like the Fatah-Hamas truces. S√©gol√®ne Royal is trying to smile her way to the helm of the mid-June legislative campaign, Fran√ßois Hollande is determined to run the show because he’s still party chief, and every member of the old guard wants to take over because Hollande and Royal have separately and jointly led them to disaster. Gossip about the Hollande-Royal sentimental rift is going public. A well-informed source tells me that Royal’s paramour is a 25 year-old Socialist party activist. A juicy bit of gossip but it can’t overshadow the excitement of watching President Sarkozy go into action.
France has moved from object of contempt to role model for the Western world.
Everyone wants a Sarkozy.
“Sarkozy’s victory: a new relationship with Europe?” Helle Dale, Washington Times, May 9, 2007
“Europe’s best hope: A new day in France,” Paul Belien, idem.
“Sarko, the American,” by Terrence Jeffrey
“Interesting Times: Where’s our Sarkozy?” Saul Singer, Jerusalem Post, May 10, 2007
“A French Rudy,” Fred Siegel, New York Post, May 12, 2007
Good old Molly Moore managed to capture a sour note in “Sailing Isn’t So Smooth for Sarkozy,” Washington Post May 10, 2007. The president-elect’s three-day cruise on a sumptuous yacht, courtesy of multimillionaire industrialist Vincent Bollor√©, made waves on the banks of the Seine and Molly was there to tell it all. Understandable when we remember her enthusiasm for Bayrou’s visits to open markets in the banlieue, surrounded by loudmouth anti-Sarkos. She ends her article with a quote from a provincial newspaper, describing Sarkozy as an “admirer of the country [America] where money and luxury are considered as mandatory symbols of success.”
“Mandatory symbols?” Isn’t it the other way around? Poverty and misery are mandatory results of failure…and not only in America.
Journalists at France 3 TV, the state-owned regional TV channel, were in open war with Sarkozy during the campaign. After a long treatment of Sarkozy on the yacht they reported that he would be continuing his working-vacation in a small luxurious hotel in the Alpilles, a beautiful region of Provence where he often visits. The high point was footage of an automobile driving away from the hotel as the voice-off explained that the guests were told to pack their bags and make way for a VIP. There was a shot of four gendarmes on a picturesque dirt road, described as heavy security for the president-elect. Interviews with neighbors and long shots of the miniature mountains (les Alpilles) filled out the report.
In fact, Nicolas Sarkozy came back from Malta, moved into his temporary government offices, and hasn’t stopped working since. Is the hotel owner in Provence still waiting? Are the gendarmes chasing chickens to keep in shape?
Jean-David Leavitte–former French ambassador to the U.S., that country of mandatory money and luxury–has been named “diplomatic advisor and Sherpa” to the new president, officially inaugurated on May 16th. Though the infamous Hubert V√©drine will not be Minister of Foreign Affairs, our joy was undercut by the very thought of his entry into our brand new government. None of us torched cars in protest.
Phew! V√©drine will not be MFA after all. He apparently did not say no, but obviously did not say yes. Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders, who has been looking for a high-level domestic or international appointment for years, accepted and was immediately excommunicated from the Socialist party.
Bernard Kouchner on location with Doctors Without Borders
Sarkozy the strategist has pulled the rug out from under the Socialists and the newly minted Centrists by appointing the wide-range government they had advocated. Bayrou preached multipartisan government for a multicultural society and Royal, dying to tango with Bayrou and seduce his voters in the final round of the campaign, suddenly discovered that the Right-Left divide was old hat; governments should be as varied as an all you can eat buffet.
The Socialists and the Bayour Centrists, with their dull meat and potatoes menus, will have a hard time attracting voters in the June legislative elections. They’re calling Bayrou’s new party (Mouvement D√©mocratique) “MoDem.” That tells it all. Who even remembers modems?
Sarkozy’s utterly new presidential style is electrifying the nation with high spirited optimism. His streamlined 15 man/woman cabinet, overwhelmingly approved by public opinion, is already at work. Major reforms all across the board are promised before September. Newscasters are upbeat. The anti-Sarkos are off the screen. One by one the ministers are whipping their departments into action. By reducing the number of ministers and reconfigurating their functions the new president has flattened the ruts that bureaucracies love to get stuck in.
The ladies are not left to their knitting in the Sarkozy government. Former Defense Minister Mich√®le Alliot-Marie has moved over to the Interior Ministry recently vacated by Nicolas Sarkozy. The young, vivacious Justice Minister, Rachida Datti, will tackle a faulty penal system, in particular when it comes to juvenile delinquents and repeat offenders. (Complete profile of the cabinet will follow shortly).
One of the unexpected side effects of regime change could be a sharp increase in US purchases of French wine and cheese and a surge of American tourists…if only the Euro could be brought down to normal size. In the meantime, let’s watch Franco-American relations warm up this summer as we confront, together, the burning international issues that never go on vacation.