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Sarkozy for (U.S.) President

L'Amérique, c'est ma maîtresse

The truth is that if Nicolas Sarkozy was running for president of the United States, he’d be further left than Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards put together. His closest kin, in domestic policy anyway, if not on all matters Iraqi, would be Dennis Kucinich. His environmental kin would be Ralph Nader. His muscular secularism makes Democratic and Republican Bible-thumpers — which is to say, every leading candidate for the presidency, including craven converts like John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani — look like religious zealots. Which brings up two questions: Why do American liberals dislike him so much? The answer lies in Sarkozy’s weird pandering to the Bush administration and most things American. It’s time for both liberals and Sarkozy to grow up.

The silliest thing about anti-Frenchism in the United States is that it’s baseless. French timidity for combat is, unfortunately, a myth: French history is replete with expansionism, colonialism, organized terrorism (ask Algerians), even the enabling of genocide (ask Rwandans: Tutsis couldn’t have been wiped out in 1994 without the generous military aid, in soldiers and wares, of Francois Mitterand). As for Dunkirk: remember, the British were running off, too, and by then neither French nor British had any choice. War for war, the French have been at it much longer than Americans, and they’ve been at it as brutally, if not more brutally, than their American cousins. That the French opposed the Iraq war was their greatest sin in American eyes. Greater still, now that the French were proven right.

To be anti-French in the last few years was held up, ironically, as a sign of patriotism, as if American patriotism, to be validated, needed a crutch with which to bash others. It only did so because it was false patriotism, the negative kind that asserts itself only as a matter of superiority to other nations. There’s a name for that: nationalism, whose natural effluent is racism. It expressed itself as literal anti-Frenchism, as if all things French down, stupidly, to french fries, were to be disowned. European and French Anti-Americanism, in contrast, while often ridiculous, has had more of an ideological edge that could distinguish between American policy and the American people.

Liberal disdain for Sarkozy ends up joining liberals and conservatives in giving anti-Frenchism a new, equally unnecessary twist. Yes, it’s a little odd to see a French president embracing the Bush junta more fervently than even some American Republicans do anymore. Sarkozy has proven incapable of reviving French-American friendship without making it seem as if that friendship must wear Texan boots and back-slap its way through the Bush White House.

Chirac's Empty House

Eleven years ago, when Jacques Chirac made his appearance before a joint session of Congress, most members boycotted his appearance in a show of glowing American hypocrisy. “Only about 30 House members and some 25 senators attended his speech,” the Times reported at the time, “with many seats filled by staff members and Congressional pages in their blue jackets, who were rushed in at the last minute.” They were protesting France’s testy nuclear explosion in the South Pacific. Admittedly, an unnecessary test plunked in the quietude of a moratorium on testing worldwide, but coming from the nation that’s tested about a thousand bombs at the Nevada Test Site alone, and more in the Pacific, the boycott was—as in all matters nuclear to this day—juvenile: Chrac had, in fact, called that week’s test the very last for France, ever, and was calling on the United States to join France in a permanent ban. Needless to say, the United States declined: to this day, the U.S. hasn’t ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.



But willingness to chat up Bush isn’t necessarily a mark of the devil. Au contraire. It is the appropriate liberal line, unlike Bush’s and most Republicans’, to talk to one’s enemies. Diplomacy is dialogue. If liberals are willing (as Kucinich is willing, incidentally) to open dialogues with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or even—as they ought to be—Osama bin Laden, they should extend the same principle to those willing to talk to Bush: chatting him up doesn’t mean admiring him, or even (if one knows Sarkozy at all) respecting him. If Sarkozy found Leslie Stahl childish in his 60 Minutes interview, the one he justly walked out on, it was not just because she kept asking him about his ex-wife Cécilia, but because Stahl’s questions were childish throughout. They reflected that the same shallow People-magazine approach to politics, the assumption that a politician’s manners and personal foibles are necessarily the window into his whole psyche, or the only really relevant matter to be discussed. Some of that very shallowness has affected the way Sarkozy has been perceived in the United States in general, dating back to his race against … what’s her name again? The deservedly forgettable Ségolène Royal.

Again, look at Sarkozy’s policies. He ridicules America’s health care system for its unfairness and inefficiencies, if not its poor quality. “If I was in love with the American model, I’d go and live there,” he wrote. “This is not the case.” He won’t rejoin NATO (and why should France, after all?). He ridicules the notion of Turkey as part of the European Community. He ridicules Bush’s frog-in-a-boiling-pan stance on global warming (and look who’s the frog there). He’d ridicule the American system of two-tiered higher ed tuition, which is fostering that new American aristocracy carving its way all over the upper crust of the nation. His most welcome announcement, made in a speech to the French-American community in the United States when he arrived here on Tuesday? Gradually extending free tuition to French expatriates through government-subsidized scholarships. Here we’re busy calculating how many decades it’ll take this generation of university students to pay off its loans.

Sarkozy has his issues. He certainly knew how to manipulate his congressional audience into cheap applause: “I want to tell you that whenever an American soldier falls somewhere in the world, I think of what the American army did for France. I think of them, and I am sad, as one is sad to lose a member of one’s family.” A wife, perhaps, or a conscience. He knows the cadences that get Capitol Hill rocking: “our friendship and our alliance is strong,” and the manners that yield star treatment: like a president entering the place for a State of the Union message, Sarkozy paraded himself through the shuffle of senators and congressmen, shaking hands, slapping backs, lip-locking, at least in grins, one face after another. The night before at the White House Mr. Bush must have given him a few pointers about the easiest ways to manipulate press and politicians. Sarkozy learned from the master.

But he’s no fool. That he’s more interesting as a president than Bush isn’t saying anything. But ask yourself again: would you not rather vote for him than any of those clowns now running for the presidency, Democrats or Republican? I would in a French heartbeat. That’s not in admiration for Sarkozy. It’s in disgust at that political phlegm posing as presidential candidates.

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