More Like the Anglo-Saxons


To his detractors, Nicolas Sarkozy resembles a panda-faced dwarf who rolls when he walks and stands uncomfortably at ceremonies, as if his shirt still had the hanger in it. They mock his tassled loafers (“so American”) and the way he occasionally pulls up his pants as if nobody was looking. The darkness around his eyes, they say, is not natural (like a panda’s), but suggests slugfests with innumerable enemies. In sum, to his detractors Sarkozy is the living epitome of the philosopher John Hobbes’s famous description of the life of man: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

But the man has fewer and fewer detractors since he became the twenty-third president of the French Republic, and the comparisons now being offered are to Charles de Gaulle and even to General Bonaparte. (Caricaturists depict Sarkozy, in a tricorn hat, sitting atop a rearing white charger in the Alps.) And this is not just because Sarkozy is strong, brilliant, and authoritative (some would say authoritarian); it is also because he stands at the eve of what seems to be shaping up as an era of far-reaching reform, perhaps the most thorough-going since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The French are famously ungovernable. The familiar paradox that has forever stymied students of France, including those of French nationality, is how a country with such a revolutionary past, still so packed with extreme political viewpoints (de...

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About the Author

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.