Décision 2007: Is Nicolas Sarkozy the French Margaret Thatcher?

Could Nicolas Sarkozy turn out to be the French Margaret Thatcher? In certain parts of London, there was jubilation Sunday night as Sarkozy easily swept past Socialist Ségolène Royal to win the French presidency. "France is on course for a Right-wing revolution," the Daily Telegraph proclaimed. "France's Only Hope for Reform Triumphs," chimed in a blogger for The Spectator. For Thatcher's heirs, it is self-evident that France needs a strong dose of privatization, tax cuts, and union-smashing to revive its sclerotic economy, and they see Sarkozy as the man to deliver the medicine.

Sarkozy may well turn out to be an effective reformer. As I have written previously, he has remarkable political skills, grounded in a classic combination of charm and ruthlessness, and certainly recognizes the need for reform. Yet to call him a right-wing revolutionary is to misread both Sarkozy himself, and the nature of the office he has just won.

If you read through Sarkozy's books, or listen to his speeches, it is easy enough to gain the impression that he is indeed a neo-liberal. He talks of the need to reward merit and work, to encourage initiative, to reduce the burden of taxes, and to make welfare less of a crutch. "The State cannot do for you what you're not willing to do for yourself," he has written. Thatcher couldn't have put it better. Indeed, Sarkozy cites Britain's transformation since the late 1970s as a model for France--albeit without mentioning Thatcher by name. But commentators have mostly failed to notice that in all his writing and speechifying, there is one key tenet of neo-liberal dogma that is entirely absent, and that is the notion of government itself as a problem. Sarkozy sees many areas where government should shrink, but, unlike Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, he does not see shrinking government as something that deserves to be done for its own sake. He wants to make the French state more efficient and less intrusive, but he still sees it as the foundation stone of the French nation.

In this sense, Sarkozy is a true Gaullist and has ties, through Gaullism, to a very old, very conservative, and distinctly paternalist strain of French political thought. It is worth noting that in his victory speech Sunday night, the new president barely mentioned specific economic reforms. Instead, he emphasized "work, authority, morality, respect, merit ... and national identity" in a way that recalled Catholic conservatives of the early twentieth century. In keeping with this traditionalism, there was also an election-night promise to "finish with repentance"--shorthand, in French politics, for ending controversial recent debates over France's responsibility for the slave trade, colonialism, and Vichy's participation in the Holocaust. While acknowledging that France's history "has dark areas," Sarkozy is quick to add in his writings that that "France has always done the right thing in the end" and charge that "this denigration ... risks undermining the foundation of the French nation."

It is possible, of course, that events themselves may turn Sarkozy into a more radical reformer than he intends. Even the French Revolution began as a consensual reform movement and only manifested its real radicalism under the pressure of events. French students and workers will certainly take to the streets en masse to protest even minor threats to their privileges by Sarkozy--the powerful teachers' union has already promised a show of force later this month. If a confrontation develops, Sarkozy could conceivably end up pushing it to the limit, as Thatcher did with Arthur Scargill and the miners in 1984-85.

But while a radical outcome is possible, the nature of the French presidency itself suggests otherwise. The office, created for Charles de Gaulle, has very broad powers, including the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call referenda, and almost complete control over foreign policy. But it was also intended as a sort of elective monarchy, high above the political fray, speaking for the nation as a whole, and, in practice, this quality makes it difficult for the president to sustain a program of controversial reform. He must delegate his domestic program to a Prime Minister who lacks his stature and can quickly become a lightning rod for protest--as the uncharismatic Alain Juppé did at the start of Jacques Chirac's presidency in 1995-97 (his policies led to the largest domestic protests since May 1968). The president cannot easily enforce discipline within his own political party and risks having autonomous "currents" develop within it at the first sign of weakness (the perennially weak nature of the French party system only exacerbates this problem). And so there is the overwhelming temptation, at moments of crisis, to fall back upon grand symbolism and foreign policy, and the courtly game of managing the competition among one's heirs apparent, leaving serious domestic issues largely untouched.

Significantly for Sarkozy, this was very much the story for the last French president elected on a clear reformist platform: François Mitterrand. Upon taking office in 1981, the Socialist Mitterrand and his prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, moved to nationalize key sectors of the economy, raise wages, cut the work week, and even name four communists to the cabinet. But economic crisis and protests against educational reforms quickly led Mitterrand to place the program on hold--what he called "opening a parenthesis in the history of socialism." The parenthesis never closed, and "King François" devoted more of his energy, during the remainder of his 14 years in office, to foreign policy, to grand Parisian building projects (the new Louvre, the National Library, the Bastille Opera, the Great Arch at La Défense), and to playing off his "dauphins" against one another.

There is, however, one area of domestic policy in which Sarkozy could conceivably carry out major reforms without paralyzing protests, and this is in the treatment of France's growing, and increasingly discontented minority population. Much of Sarkozy's miserable reputation on the left comes from his tough stance toward law and order in the desperately poor suburban areas where so many Muslims live--and he owes the presidency in large part to having siphoned votes away from Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front. But Sarkozy has also shown far more flexibility toward the problem than most other French politicians--starting with the simple recognition that there is a problem that cannot be solved by traditional methods of "republican integration." Sarkozy's calls for equal opportunity, combined with his emphasis on work, family, and morality, will have considerable appeal for culturally conservative Muslims, and his calls for some variety of French affirmative action might help counteract the racism and suspicion that have made it difficult for young children and grandchildren of immigrants to escape from the suburban ghettos. Moreover, the principal resistance to these policies will come less from the usual suspects on the left and in the streets than from "neo-republican" intellectuals within his own center-right camp. So in this domain, at least, President Sarkozy could conceivably make a large difference. But it is a difference that will increase the power of the French state, not the reverse, and make Sarkozy look even less like the Thatcherite he misleadingly appears, to some, to be.

By David A. Bell