As an Agent of Change, Sarkozy Faces a Big Test



The International Herald Tribune

December 4, 2007 Tuesday


By John Vinocur

PARIS, France— Muhammad Ali once claimed he was so fast he could flick off the switch on his bedside lamp and slide under the covers before the light went out.  

Also blessed with supreme self-confidence and a taste for speed, Nicolas Sarkozy explained recently, ”I’m not stopping, I’m accelerating.”

”One day,” he predicted, ”you’ll say I was as much a reformer as Margaret Thatcher.”  

There’s substance to Sarkozy’s ambition. As an agent of change, working against the still-life backdrop of most of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s quarter century in power, this president, after six months on the job, seems like a man locked in sprint mode.

In four November weeks, he waited out a public services strike to banish the principle of special pension deals that made working less and retiring with extra cash the symbol of a pervasive French anti-work ethic. Doubling up, Sarkozy then pointed last Thursday to a path away from the 35-hour workweek, the country’s second less-is-more societal beacon.  

Combined, the measures are culture-altering twins, decisions in Sarkozy’s view meant to dissolve the taboos that for a generation made a reactionary concept for the French out of the idea that greater effort equals greater productivity and greater reward.

Add this: A reinvigorated relationship with the United States that takes France out of its old, marginalized role as reflexive antagonist. With it, a plan to return French forces to NATO’s integrated command, aimed at showing the new Europe of former Soviet satellites that Paris is a leader ready to guarantee their security in cooperation with the Americans.

Plus dozens of undertakings wrenching from slumber French citizens and their webs of special interest groups. That’s a lot for anyone’s May to December.  

Credit Sarkozy’s profound knowledge of the operative lanes of French power, gained in years as interior minister, finance minister and head of the Gaullist party.

And also consider Sarkozy’s get-up-earlier, think-faster personality, his gifts as a pitchman and his truly exceptional drive, which, at times, gives him the big-screen relentlessness of a Hollywood character marked by passion, haste and, maybe, great failings.  

So far in this first reel, Sarkozy has been lucky. The leftist opposition is pathetically leaderless and atomized. The traditional trade unions are not in much more cohesive shape. On the right, the statist, nationalist and corporatist opposition to Sarkozy’s policies is lamed.

In truth, Sarkozy was also fortunate that a couple of nights of rioting by Arab and African immigrants last week in a Paris suburb did not spread elsewhere after the death of two local teenagers when their motorcycle collided with a police car. The shock effect and seeming pause for reflection created when several police officers were wounded by shotgun fire seemed to defuse the confrontation.  

According to Sarkozy, the shooting was purely the work of thugs; and he jumped on those people who he said searched for a ”social problem in every riot.”

In subsequent days, the president said the government would address the issue of ”the suburbs” in a report due in mid-January from Fadela Amara, a Sarkozy appointee of North African origin in the housing ministry whose brief is urban affairs.  

Then, over the weekend, Sarkozy proclaimed ”the health of the French” as his priority for 2008.

The fact is, public health service in France is generally good, and concentrating on it involves creating a ”me” issue, or one where great numbers of voters see themselves as beneficiaries. In contrast, dealing with racial discrimination and integration are ”them” problems, connected to vast antagonisms across the broadest stretches of the population.  

For a president who, with success, has tried to do everything at once, particularly what casts him as courageous and determined, subordinating the miserable and undiminished question of inequality here is striking – call it conspicuous underkill.

Since 2003, Sarkozy has held the unique position in France of being an advocate of affirmative action. The concept itself is a leaden one in French because it translates out to discrimination positive , and that can sound too much like discriminating against neighbor A to assist neighbor B.  

Over the years, discrimination positive has come under attack from all sides, but most remarkably from the French left, which has called it an un-French, American capitalist idea that would make most people less equal.

My sense is that Sarkozy has come to feel he’s stuck with his pledge, a good idea but a bedeviled project that he is not sure how to turn into reality.  

His definition of it on the campaign trail in March was plain torture:

”If I’m elected, I will adopt a policy of discrimination positive à la française, founded not on ethnic criteria which nourish the separation of communities, but economic and social criteria. This is because republican equality isn’t equal treatment in unequal situations but giving more to those who have less to compensate for handicaps.”  

Got that? It means no quotas, and ”no Americanization of our society,” but recognizes certain people (no name, race or national origin, please) with certain revenues in certain neighborhoods clearly don’t become army officers or professors or cops or get fair treatment on the job market.

Which everyone in France already knows. What they do not know, and what Sarkozy appears unsure about, is how France would quantify, calculate and order the specific process reversing racial discrimination.  

You could almost think Sarkozy has concluded that affirmative action in France is one difficult sell.

Not pushing forward directly with the plan or offering it without the presidential drumroll and stamp are ways around possible trouble for Sarkozy. They are political expedients.  

But on this big issue, resorting to them signifies balking before a tough obstacle rather than the promised acceleration in the pace of change. For Sarkozy, who wants to be a great reformer, such a choice would not be forgotten.




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