Sarko and the Sedentary Tourist

It’s bizarre, to use a favorite word of the French, that my preferred way of exploring France can be done from a café or from the apartment. I am fascinated by what I find in the newspapers, on television, on CDs, and on the internet. But for Darlene’s desire to explore the real world, I could happily plant myself anywhere in France with a decent internet connection, and create France between my ears. Now, of course, is a rich time for such intellectual tourism, because of the unfolding post-Non drama. But even in normal times, I would be happy, as I am in Denver, never straying far from my desk or favorite café table. I am a sedentary tourist.

Which is not to say that the location of my body is unimportant. The vibe here in Cannes is totally different than the vibe in Denver. I don’t believe my mind operates differently, but because every single feature of the environment is slightly strange, it’s as if my usual mind becomes energized by taking in new impressions. I often wonder what I would make of my life 30 years ago if I were to return knowing what I know now. Living for an extended period in France is like that. Speaking French at the level of a precocious child brings me into a childlike zone of communication and emotion. I have a 12-year-old’s delight in figuring out the world of the grownups when I try to decipher what’s going on in French politics. The last time I might have felt this level of discovery would have been when Kennedy was running against Nixon.

All this is by way of caveat for my gangly impressions of the current French scene. To wit:

The most intriguing figure in the soap opera is Nicolas Sarkozy, a little guy with big ears, intense eyes, and an impressively pointed beak. He is immensely popular, despite his conservative ideas, because he seems to be more “of the people” than the traditional French political class, all of whom attend a certain school, the Harvard Business School of French politics, and many of whom seem to take on the bearing and elitist grandeur of aristocrats, perhaps because of all the meetings they have in palatial rooms decorated in gold. Sarkozy is the only major politician frequently referred to in the mainstream press by a nickname, “Sarko.” It gives him the flair of an action figure.

In the tumult of France’s Non vote to the European Constitution, the discredited President Jacques Chirac dismissed his loyal prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who is now savoring his freedom during a long vacation in sunny Crete. Chirac took the message of the referendum to be “It’s the unemployment, stupid” and he promised that the new government would be focused on making a dent in France’s stubborn unemployment rate, which has been above 10 percent for most of the past 20 years. The fascinating question that has worldwide implications is whether France can create more jobs without tumbling to what is scornfully referred to here as “the Anglo-Saxon model” of low taxes, a minimal social safety net and wild-west competition. In an odd quirk of language, this dreaded model is called “liberalism” in France, so if Rush Limbaugh were to syndicate his show here he would have to figure out nice things to say about liberals every other 10 minutes.

Chirac and his crowd believe they can have jobs and the French social system, too. Sarko says no, it’s time for big changes, it’s time to admit that other approaches, such as that of the hated Brits, are creating more jobs than the French model. That he is popular in spite of these scary ideas is a tribute to his skill as a politician. When Chirac shuffled the deck of ministers, he put Dominique de Villepin at the top, as prime minister. Villepin is a tall, elegant fellow with gorgeously long white hair who writes poetry and who made a stirring case against the war in Iraq at the U.N. The rest of the ministers are mainly Chirac loyalists, but the cagey president of the Republic surprised everyone by including Sarko in the lineup, as the number two minister. And Sarko surprised his friends by accepting the job, instead of staying outside the government in his powerful post as head of the majority party, where he might have enjoyed lobbing rhetorical grenades over the wall at Chirac et al between now and 2007 when the next presidential election is held.

Last night on television, Sarkozy explained his reasoning in a way that helped me understand his appeal. He admitted he is in a difficult situation, being the sole “liberal” minded minister surrounded by ideological opponents and political foes. “It’s precisely because it’s difficult that I want to do it,” he said. “And now is a time for everyone in France to work together.” Sophie, my new French teacher, explained it this way: “It’s very risky for him to join the government, but he is a man who is unafraid of risk, and that is perhaps what France needs.”

Le Monde this morning has a cartoon as usual on its front page. It shows Villepin at the bow of a little boat, reciting these lines of poetry: “Le chômage, je vais le vaincre / Et j’ai 100 jours pour convaincre!” (Unemployment, I am going to conquer it / and I have 100 days to convince!) At the stern of the boat, holding the royal red train of Chirac, is a goofy little caricature of Sarkozy with a big grin, reciting his own little poem to Villepin: “Continue à faire le couillon / Tu vas bientôt déraper, / et comme Napoleon, / je vais t’impoisonner!” (Keep being an imbecile / you will soon get out of hand / and like Napoleon / I will poison you!”)

So this is a great drama unfolding. I love reading the different newspapers, because each has its own ideological slant. But love him or hate him, Sarko is always center stage. He reminds me of Ross Perot, without the whacko.

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