Why Sarkozy Matters

Brian Goldsmith is an associate producer for the CBS Evening News in New York.
(Getty Images/Joel Saget)
That France elected Nicolas Sarkozy as president yesterday should matter to Americans, at least the political junkies among us. With 53% of the vote --and 85% of the country turned out -- Sarkozy's sweeping victory violates four key conventional wisdoms that scholars and journalists have long ascribed not just to French voters, but to Yanks as well.

Conventional wisdom #1: People support the candidate they like. Well, not always. One constant of this year's electoral season was that— despite her every effort—Sarkozy's opponent, the Socialist Segolene Royal, could not leverage her consistent double-digit likeability advantage into any kind of electoral gain. Sarkozy—who has been compared to Giuliani by his fans, and Nixon by his detractors—won on competence and experience and strength, but his tough persona never won the country's affection.

Conventional wisdom #2: The French hate America. And yet, they just elected a man called "Sarkozy l'Américain" by friend and foe alike, a candidate with the impertinence to visit the president of the United States while visiting the United States—and to be seen doing it, a Frenchman openly in awe of America's economic growth. Sarkozy differs with the Bush administration on Iraq, climate change, and more—but calls them "disagreements between great friends." He vows to stand with America in supporting Israel. And for the future: "France will always be next to [Americans] when they need us."

Conventional wisdom #3: The French will never change. But they just voted for profound change—on domestic as well as foreign policy. The "right-wing" Sarkozy occupies about the same place on the ideological spectrum as Chris Dodd. Don't forget, though: in France, Chris Dodd is a radical conservative. Previous Gaullists have run on personality or national pride; Jacques Chirac muted the differences with his Socialist predecessor for fear of scaring the electorate with an agenda that might get called "liberal"—a dirty word in France for precisely the opposite reason it is an insult in America. But Sarkozy ran as an unabashed reformer. His regular stump speech included the phrase "the French must work harder." He touched not just the third rail of French politics—the thirty-five hour workweek— but almost every other rail as well: high marginal tax rates, mandatory paid vacation time, the strength of the public sector unions, the lack of affirmative action in a divided country that kids itself on égalité. (Sarkozy also recognized that some of their differences with America favor the French: better health care, better life expectancy, better at preventing the dangerous marriage of criminals and guns…)

Conventional wisdom #4: Candidates should possess a "presidential"
background and temperament. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, the grandson of a Sephardic Jew, Sarkozy never went to the "grandes écoles" that normally prepare French presidents. His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 2005 his current wife carried on a very public affair—a privilege, in French politics, usually reserved for the man. And when, in the fall of that year, mainly Arab and African immigrants torched cars and broke windows in the Paris suburbs to protest that France hadn't provided them enough, Interior Minister Sarkozy said what nobody else would: that violence was unacceptable and its perpetrators were "scum." I was there at the time—and it's hard for an American to imagine the outrage among commentators and politicians that he actually stood up to the criminals he called "hoodlums" and "thugs" rather than try to understand them, or blame himself. He even suggested using a karcher to clean out rough neighborhoods. My friend Mike Murphy joked on NPR that, from a conservative's perspective, Sarkozy is terrific because his solutions for France tend to involve a big water cannon. The more shocking thing about Sarkozy is that his solutions for France tend to involve big policy change—and a big mouth.