A Man with Vision? France's President Wields Enormous Power. Nicolas Sarkozy and His Rival Could Use It to Force Change. Why They Won't

Newsweek International, January 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Man with Vision? France's President Wields Enormous Power. Nicolas Sarkozy and His Rival Could Use It to Force Change. Why They Won't


Byline: Denis MacShane (MacShane, a Labour M.P., was Britain's Europe minister until 2005. He has written a biography of Francois Mitterrand.)

The pictures on the BBC news last week were grim. Third World despair as queues of hungry, homeless men and women huddled under thin tents or gratefully accepted soup and bread from charities. But this wasn't Africa or some other forlorn pocket of global poverty. This was Paris, 2007. Lining the banks of the Seine, steps from the most expensive shopping streets in the world, was a modern-day version of Hooverville, the tented city set up in Washington in 1932 to highlight the plight of the poor and the homeless in the years before Roosevelt's New Deal transformed the United States.

Wealth and poverty have always coexisted, uneasily, in France. Its affluent, self-satisfied elites, whether left or right, have never shown much concern for the plight of those on the streets. In the past, when this gap between haves and have-nots grew too wide, a revolt would come along to jolt the nation into reality. Think of the cultural-social earthquake of 1968, or the Paris Commune uprising after France's humiliation by Bismarck's Prussians in 1870, or the grandpere of them all, the 1789 Revolution. Today, of course, elections are supposed to bring change without the intercession of the street. But these days, it's fair to ask: is politics delivering?

Last week France's conservative party formally put up its candidate for this spring's presidential elections. Nicolas Sarkozy waxed eloquent about the country's troubles--economic, social and cultural. He evoked the Crusades and France's 2,000 years of Christian heritage and spoke eloquently about the importance of "hard work, fairness, merit and responsibility." Yet he did not mention his countrymen living in tents along the Seine.

For Sarkozy--as well as his rival on the left, Segolene Royal--the political byword these days is change. Both promise it, yet neither presents a compelling vision for it. This makes the French uneasy, yearning as they do, traditionally, for a strong leader, especially in such unpredictable times as these. French presidents possess unique power, after all. Unlike a U.S. president, who contends with a legislature, or a British prime minister, who must turn up every Wednesday to defend himself in the bear pit of the Commons, the French president sits in the Elysee, remote from his people. He can make war or proclaim law in the most centralized command-and-control state outside the Korean Peninsula. L'etat, c'est moi. The famous remark of Louis XIV was given new life by de Gaulle, Mitterrand and their successors.

Now comes this pair of pretenders, talking the talk of change but, the French note, displaying little inclination to walk the walk. Perhaps it was no accident last week that an odd bit of forgotten history floated into the news, like so much flotsam on a tide. In 1956, it seems, an obscure socialist teacher of English, Guy Mollet, briefly prime minister, came to London and suggested to his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, that France and Britain should merge into one nation with the English queen as head of state. This incredible proposal surfaced in a top-secret file that had lain unnoticed in Britain's state archives for decades.

It came after the Suez crisis and at the height of the Algerian war, when French confidence was at its nadir. Fortunately for France, Charles de Gaulle arrived on the scene in 1958, and ruthlessly pushed the country to modernize. France grew at an average 6 percent in the 1960s, three times faster than Britain. By the time de Gaulle died, in 1970, France was back on its feet. For every 100 hours an American worked, his French equivalent worked 107.

Contrast that to the situation of his titular inheritors today. Growth is flat--zero in the third quarter of last year; exports are falling. The French nowadays work 30 percent fewer hours, on average, than Americans. …

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