Sunday, September 23, 2007

A new friend for the Etats-Unis

When I first read about Nicolas Sarkozy, several years ago, I was interested. He struck me as an innovator and an ascendant leader. But as the French presidential election approached last April, I became extremely disillusioned. I saw him a right-wing demagogue, a radical and more dangerous version of Rudy Giuliani. I was also working in a legislative office with two Columbia grad students from France who thought that Sarkozy's election was apocalyptic.

But in the past few months, I have really been shocked and stunned by Sarkozy's performance - pleasantly surprised. Rather than being Mussolini incarnate, he's been the cool new kid on the block, the next Tony Blair.

Sarkozy has radically changed Franco-American relations overnight. France has suddenly changed from being one of our biggest critics to being one of our closest allies, particularly on the highly difficult subject of Iran. Surely some fellow liberals would accuse Sarkozy of being fundamentally pro-Bush rather than pro-American. But Sarkozy's overtures have gone far beyond Bush. Rather, he believes in America, the way immigrants often do, the way we are taught to in elementary school. And that is a radical change. I have no doubt that Chirac thought America sucked. Although I disagree with Bush's foreign policy goals (read: Iraq), the United States will always be more effective with the support of our allies. If the French government being pro-American means that they are simultaneously pro-Bush, well, I could care less.

In a new interview with The New York Times, Sarkozy spoke vividly about what he sees as the shared common values between the United States and France:
You know from the way we celebrate the [Normandy] landings that the French people are with the Americans, and the American flag is popular in France. I have said, moreover, that relations between France and the United States go well beyond the personality of Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Bush. There are people who will come after me, and who will come after Mr. Bush. And I see myself in the historic tradition of [French military leaders during the U.S. Revolution] [the count of] Rochambeau and [the Marquis of] Lafayette. At the time, there were 20 million Frenchmen and four million Americans. And it was the genius of Louis XVI to understand that this young, American democracy had to be helped. France was there. With Lafayette and Rochambeau. Rochambeau refused to receive the sword from the British — he gave it to [George] Washington in a magnificent gesture. Lafayette is a great figure in French history because he was the godfather of relations between the United States and France. We have never been at war. We have always helped each other. We have always helped each other. I don’t see why we should see ourselves as enemy nations. It makes no sense.

So maybe the problems we’ve had stem from the fact that we are both countries which believe — and not all countries believe this — that our values are universal. For my part, I think that the French and the United States are much more alike than they think. Much more. It is rare to find countries in the world that think their ideas are universal. The Germans don’t, nor do the Spanish and the Italians. Nor do the Chinese. They think themselves to be universal for themselves, I mean within their empire. In the United States and France, we think our ideas are destined to illuminate the world. And perhaps that is the source of the competition between us. It’s perhaps the fact that we are alike.

Sarkozy frames himself as a pragmatist and he has acted as such as president. He appointed Bernard Kouchner, long time Socialist politician and founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, as foreign minister, a very bold and surprising move. He also nominated Dominique Strauss-Kahn, runner up in the Socialist Party presidential primaries, as head of the International Monetary Fund. Sarkozy wasn't forced to appoint Socialists because of some power arrangement deal or the like. He apparently did it because he felt they were most qualified, something that is truly remarkable.

Although I don't know much about France's domestic situation, he seems to be doing good work. Though my natural inclination is to support the labor or socialist candidate in foreign elections, France is so far to the left of the United States in terms of socialization. Does their economy work? Doubtful. So what Sarkozy wants to do domestically is extremely sensible.

In the end, Sarkozy is fundamentally a Clintonite or a Blairite, a believer that he can dramaticly rewrite France's political environment. What I truly admired about Bill Clinton, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair (in the early days) was their ability to free people from their assumptions about government and politics. It is this quality that I also see in Barack Obama and Mike Bloomberg. They all bring a revolutionary spirit. I'm from New York City, and I have been constantly impressed by the Bloomberg administration. Even when Bloomberg makes mistakes, he shows a verve that Giuliani only had for locking up homeless people. He has completely changed the way New Yorkers think about the potential for city governance.

And so that is what I see in Nicolas Sarkozy, a man set out to change France and the world. Once again, I might have misread this complex character, but I certainly hope not. As he said in the above quote, Sarkozy believes that our countries' ideas are "destined to illuminate the world." That is a powerful thought.

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