Nothing unbecame Nicolas Sarkozy so much as the way he lost power. In the waning months of the French presidential campaign this spring, he turned his back on what he had long stood for. It wasn't just that he courted voters of the Far Right. He also betrayed the cause he had come into office championing in 2007, when he promised to turn France into a "liberal" society. (In France, as in the rest of Europe, "liberal" means something like "pro-market"). Sarkozy had sold a substantial majority of French voters a bill of goods about what they could and should become: prosperity lay in following the "Anglo-Saxon" example of individualism and deregulation. He was frank about this: "An egalitarian society," he famously said, "is the opposite of a society of responsibility and liberty." This was the platform with which he soundly beat the Socialist Party candidate, Segolene Royal, five years ago. But as Sarkozy began to implement his Anglo-Saxon model, with tax policies that favored the rich and an interventionist foreign policy, the French people had second thoughts. That sweet word "liberty" began to sound more like "privilege" when Sarkozy said it.
But the man had his moment--this is important to state, for people have suddenly forgotten how many of the French Sarkozy seduced. A leading sociologist, Emmanuel Todd, gets it wincingly right in his book After Democracy:
If, despite his vacuity, violence, and vulgarity, Nicolas Sarkozy existed as a social and historical phenomenon, we ought to admit that he did not arrive at the summit of the state despite these intellectual and moral deficiencies, but because of them. His downsides seduced us: his respect for the strong and his scorn for the weak; his love of money and his desire for inequality; his need to be aggressive and his constant willingness to take out after minorities--especially the poor ones in the suburbs, or in Muslim and Black African countries; the vertigo of his narcissism and the public display of his personal life, including even, implicitly, his sex life --all of his misbegotten needs in fact secretly attract[ed] most of French society, and if they did not represent its totality, they certainly showed what a state of crisis and anguish it [was] in.
As it happened, though, Sarkozy chose his moment badly. His business-friendly agenda barely got off the ground before it was knocked galley-west by an international economic crisis, which began with subprime mortgages and complex derivatives and went on, in Europe, to include sovereign debt. And so it was that in the last year of his unhappy presidency, Sarkozy desperately turned against his own liberal program. Placing himself at cross-purposes with many in his own party, the Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), Sarkozy began to distance himself from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he had championed fiscal austerity as the solution to Europe's woes. He also went after immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. So much for the open Anglo-Saxon model. By the end of his campaign for reelection, he had all but lost his soul by openly courting Marine Le Pen's violently anti-European, anti-immigrant Front National. No UMP leader had done that before. But it was all in vain.
In the fifteen-hundred-year history of France, it would be hard to find a greater contrast to Sarkozy than the man who has replaced him: Francois Hollande. Apart from their intelligence and their age (both men are fifty-seven), the two have nothing in common. Hollande's victory has been taken as evidence that slow and steady really does win the race. In an annus mirabilis of unbelievable work and a little luck, he went from being last on everyone's list to head of state--and he did it his way. Hollande (the former partner of Segolene Royal) has had to face more than his fair share of derision and disappointment over the course of his three-decade career in French politics, …