Chirac and a Hard Place

Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century BY Nicolas Sarkozy. Pantheon. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century

The only time I met Nicolas Sarkozy was at a press conference after a French-British summit meeting. The man who might well be the next president of France was not the center of attention that day. He was a spectator, like me: not a role that he likes very much.

We were introduced by a junior French politician. Sarkozy shook hands. He shifted from foot to foot. He said little. He moved constantly. When the press conference began, he twisted in his seat as if he had a plane to catch or an awkward body part to scratch. He chatted with other French ministers on either side. He paid no heed to the two principal speakers, President Jacques Chirac, his onetime mentor, and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, someone whom he claims to admire deeply. A rival politician once described Sarkozy as a "real shark. . . . He has to keep moving all the time or he'll die." My impression was a little kinder. Meeting Sarkozy is like meeting an overactive nine-year-old or, rather, a typical nine-year-old: someone who finds it physically irksome to stay still.

The first few pages of Sarkozy's book Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century are littered with purposeful words such as act, construct, do. The first sentence is: "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to make a difference." The dull English translation has flattened the breathless chattiness of the original French ("D'aussi loin que je me souvienne, j'ai toujours voulu agir"). Témoignage, published last year, gives you the authentic voice of Sarkozy: conversational, energetic, arrogant, but not pompous. The last quality alone makes him a very different kind of French politician. He is driven, he insists, by results, not by ideology or egotism.

This has been his pitch now for four years, long before anyone else started campaigning, long before his nominal boss, Jacques Chirac, admitted that there was a vacancy. Sarkozy is (Sarkozy says) the man of France's future; the young and dynamic man (fifty-two is young in French politics) who can save the nation from internal division and economic decline; from excessive dependence on the state and aversion to risk; from special interests and morbid fascination with the past; from the destructive drift of one in three voters to the extreme right or extreme left. He now leads the opinion polls ahead of the two-round presidential election, on April 22 and May 6. His principal rival, the Socialist Ségolène Royal, has attracted more attention abroad because she is a woman (a beautiful woman). She is recovering after a shaky January and February. There is also something of a late surge by a militant centrist candidate, François Bayrou, a man who talks straight but says nothing much. The smart money believes that Sarkozy will win.

And yet something about him scares many French people, even some who would normally vote center-right. He is accused of being an ultraliberal, which means "ultraconservative" in the French political lexicon. He is accused, on both the left and the Chiracian right, of wanting to dismantle the French state and let market forces rip. He is accused of being an "American poodle," a "French Thatcher," a "Bush boy."

American readers of this book will find those accusations puzzling. If you picked up Sarkozy and parachuted him onto Capitol Hill, he would float down somewhere in the right and center of the Democratic Party. Yes, he wants to roll back the French state (which uses 55 percent of the annual GDP). Yes, he wants to cut back on the vast army of 5.2 million French state employees (one in twelve of the population). Yes, he wants to reduce taxes and clamp down on violent youth crime. Yes, he wants to circumscribe the rights of trade unions, especially the right to strike. But he also believes in state intervention to protect, or boost, strategic industries, from energy to pharmaceuticals. He believes in a Gallic version of affirmative action and in European trade preference in some areas (in other words, EU trade barriers against the rest of the world). He believes that politicians, not just bankers, should have a say in the running of the euro. If anything, since he wrote Testimony, Sarkozy has moved his pieces even closer to the center of the left-tilted political chessboard in France. In his nomination speech in January, he praised Socialist heroes Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum.

There are passages in Testimony where Sarkozy is bang on the money. France is a bizarre mixture of nominal egalitarianism and entrenched privilege. For all its talk of égalité and fraternité, it is a country that has traditionally provided generous benefits for the employed, especially those employed by the state. If you are stuck on the outside, white, brown, or black, life is not so rosy. Outsiders, especially the children of immigrants, but also, increasingly, the children of white, middle-class insiders, find it difficult to reach the first rung of the ladder. Hence, in part, the youth and student unrest of the last twenty-odd months. Sarkozy says: "The reality of our system is that it protects those who have something and it is very tough on those who don't." Quite right. However, in the very next section, he talks about the need to relieve the pressures on the downtrodden French middle class—the classic insiders, averse to radical change, whose votes decide elections in France. As often with Sarkozy, you are left wondering what this pragmatic, nonideological, results-oriented man really believes in. Is he, after all, just another say-anything-to-get-elected politician? Is he another Chirac?

Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa was born in Paris on January 28, 1955. His father, Pal, was an aristocratic Hungarian charmer, a refugee from communism, and an advertising executive. His mother, Andrée, is a formidable half-Jewish lawyer who supported and raised Sarkozy and his two brothers after their father drifted away. Unlike most French politicians, and unlike Royal, Sarkozy has not come through the traditional finishing schools of the French elite, the Grandes Ecoles (a kind of Ivy League for technocrats). He learned his politics at the grass roots, though admittedly at the roots of very lush grass. He became mayor of his hometown, Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Paris, at the age of twenty-eight.

Originally a protégé of Chirac—and briefly linked to his daughter, Claude— Sarkozy split with the Chirac clan in 1993–94. He supported Chirac's center-right rival, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 election. Chirac won, and he felt betrayed by Sarkozy. Worse, Chirac's wife and daughter felt personally humiliated by someone who had been allowed to cross the threshold of family intimacy, a frontier jealously guarded in high-bourgeois France. Bernadette Chirac is said to have remarked: "And to think, he has seen us in our nightclothes . . ."

Sarkozy patiently built his own power base. He became a frenetic, successful, and popular interior minister after Chirac was reelected in 2002. Almost immediately, he declared his hand. Only a year into the new term, he let it be known that, after thirty-five years of prominence but little achievement, Chirac was a man of the past. Sarkozy lifted himself up a whole division, from one of a number of center-right contenders for the presidential crown to the contender. That took cunning, but it also took guts.

Sarkozy has a third quality vital to a successful politician: luck. One by one, in the last few years, his potential rivals have self-destructed. Chirac has been knocked out of the reckoning by his poor health and his slow, vague reaction to the suburban riots in November 2005 and student unrest last spring. The prime minister (and Chirac protégé), Dominique de Villepin, wrecked his own hopes with his alleged involvement in an attempt to "smear" Sarkozy and with an abortive youth-employment law. A couple of weeks ago, it looked as if Royal would also obligingly self-destruct and give Sarkozy a clear run to the Élysée Palace. That is no longer so certain.

In some ways, the great mystery—"Who is Nicolas Sarkozy?"—is no mystery at all. Sarkozy claims, first and foremost, to be a reworking of Charles de Gaulle for the modern world. (He is a pocket version: five foot five to de Gaulle's six foot five.) De Gaulle, Sarkozy insists, was not a conservative, but a revolutionary. He rebuilt a floundering France through a mixture of traditional values, state intervention, prag-matism, sheer brute willpower, and personal prestige. Gaullism was, first and foremost, a kind of "intellectual freedom," Sarkozy says: a refusal to be bound by ideology and tradition, a determination to do whatever was needed to rebuild France. It was also, he implies, a freedom to be democratic and antidemocratic at the same time: to tell the people one thing and then do another—in their own best interests, of course.

This implies that Sarkozy would be a Chirac in reverse. Chirac did less than he promised to reform and reduce the French state. Sarkozy suggests in the final chapters of his book that he will, if necessary, do more than promised. If so, he will almost certainly be challenged on the streets. A Sarkozy presidency would not be a comfortable ride, not for the French, and not for anyone else.

And indeed, neither the United States nor the rest of Europe found de Gaulle an easy partner.

John Lichfield is the French correspondent for the London newspaper The Independent.