Magazine article The Spectator

Sarkozy's Dream of Taming America Is Doomed

Magazine article The Spectator

Sarkozy's Dream of Taming America Is Doomed

Article excerpt

French presidents/emperors are given to delusion. Napoleon thought he could conquer the Russian winter. Charles de Gaulle thought he heard voices anointing him the leader of the Free French, and later deluded himself into believing that he -- not the British and the Americans, not Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt -- liberated France from the Nazis, to whom the massive French army had quickly surrendered just a few years earlier.

And now we have Nicolas Sarkozy. Taller than Napoleon, shorter than de Gaulle, but equally susceptible to delusions. And more than one. The first is that he can turn back the tide of globalisation, hold back the tides of capital that wash across national borders.

So he has set up one of the 20 largest investment funds in the world, to be managed by state-backed Caisse des Dépôts, its purpose to prevent foreign companies from buying French enterprises. 'The day we stop building trains, aircraft, cars and ships, what is left of the French economy? I will not turn France into a reserve for tourists, ' he said last week. He might have added that the soul of the nation would wither were foreigners to gain control of Danone, the yogurt-maker, which he has also declared off-limits to foreigners.

Meanwhile EDF, France's state-owned electricity monopoly, is purchasing British Energy and control of Britain's nuclear power industry. This transfers to Paris decisions concerning the allocation of investment funds between facilities needed to keep French consumers and industries adequately supplied with affordable electricity, and those needed in Britain. Sarkozy is untroubled by the contradictions inherent in his combination of protecting French companies while acquiring overseas enterprises. Gordon Brown should be. Even Adam Smith never argued that free trade trumps all other societal concerns.

Sarkozy's delusions do not stop with his notion that he can control the flow of capital without reducing the material wellbeing of France's citizens. He also believes that his recent trip to Washington to attend the G20 meeting resulted in the reduction of the United States to a junior partner of a French-led Europe. Sarkozy is generous: he concedes that he needed a bit of help from regulation-inclined Gordon Brown to consign the American model of capitalism to the ash heap of history. But only a bit of help. Brown merely blames America, knowing that doing so gets him off the hook at home, but does not antagonise the incoming president, who is every bit as critical of Bush as Brown has now found the courage to be. Sarkozy goes further: he wants to cut American influence down to size, to a notch below that of France if possible, well below Europe if he has to settle for that comparison. Hence Sarkozy's renewed pursuit of the long-held French dream of enhancing his nation's power and prestige by diminishing the role played in the world by that hyperpower, the United States of America.

Sarkozy is shrewd enough to know that two things converge to enhance his chances of success. The first is the unpopularity of George W. Bush, and the fact that the US President is a lame duck, his power diminished by his low standing in the polls and the presence of removal vans at the back entrance of the White House. When Barack Obama is sworn in on 20 January, European leaders won't have George Bush to kick around any more, to borrow a phrase made famous by Richard Nixon when his failure to capture California's governorship seemed to him to mark the end of his political career. …

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