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 Gaulle compared their myriad political parties to the number of cheeses the country produces), can yet prove, day in and day out, to be more resistant to change than Oscar Wilde’s Aunt Augusta in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Yet change is at hand, and likely all the more so since Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is widely expected to win an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the mid-June legislative elections. Precisely why France may tolerate serious reform now, when it wouldn’t last year or for years before that, is hard to say. It surely cannot have hurt chances for reform that Sarkozy and François Fillon, his prime minister, have put together something approaching a government of union sacrée, or union sucrée (sugary), as a critic mockingly calls it for its widespread appeal. Sarkozy has rallied leading names from the center as well as the left-notably Bernard Kouchner, “le French doctor” who founded the Nobel-crowned Doctors Without Borders, and who is now foreign minister.

What is undeniable is that for several years now the public square in France has resounded to a threnody of published wails and accusations from all points on the political compass, each agonizing over the “decline of France.” And the evidence they adduce is startlingly the same, regardless of the political provenance of the author. The lists invariably cite the slowing of the rate of French economic growth (since 2000, France has run a balance of payments deficit, while rival Germany has run a surplus); high structural unemployment (8.3 percent); confiscatory taxation (what success French industry enjoys seems due to out-sourcing, not to sites located in France); inhibited entrepreneurial spirit due to over-regulation; etc.

What is more striking than this shared diagnosis is the general consensus for a treatment of the malady: to wit, a fast and stringent dosage of what the French call “liberalization.” By this they mean a significant lightening of the heavy hand of the state in taxation and social-economic regulation, as well as a large reduction in the size of France’s Diplodocus public sector (roughly half the people in this country of 60 million have a close relative on the state payroll; public spending accounts for 54 percent of France’s GDP; it pays more on the national debt than it expends for defense). A related issue of broad (if only recent) consensus in France is the demand for closer controls over immigration and integration into France and French society.

To sum it all up with discomfiting frankness, these (and many other) reforms entail France’s becoming more like the rest of the world, more like, horror of horrors, “the Anglo-Saxons,” as the French call the British and Americans.

In a forced-march summer session, the French Assembly and French society as a whole will presently be asked to grasp the nettles of a large number of key issues that have broken governments for the past generation. To cite a few: reducing unemployment (for example, by forbidding “golden parachutes” in companies where the state has any share of ownership); requiring mandatory minimum service during transport strikes; offering more flexible work contracts; allowing tax-free overtime for people who choose to log more than the current thirty-five-hour week; legislating a complete overhaul of state employee pension schemes (notoriously unequal, some sectors-for example, railroad workers-doing far better than others); taking a lead in ecology; granting greater autonomy to the universities; doubling the state research budget; and, perhaps, legislating a year of national service. Similar initiatives will continue thick and fast through the fall, so that by the new year, in theory, the Sarkozy regime will in significant ways have laid the foundations of a new political economy for France. If some of the means will surely be vigorously debated, the basic principle of it all no longer is: the Socialists, since their electoral defeat in May, have more or less openly embraced free-market capitalism, which, until recently, they had spurned. (And the Communists? They have all but disappeared.)

There is one area of slated reform, though, that apparently bids fair to entrench France’s status as Odd Duck. It is President Sarkozy’s creation of the Ministry of National Identity and Immigration. This department has had additional titles thrown its way-Integration and Codevelopment-to soften the blow of this perturbing combination, but make no mistake: it has raised a lot of opposition, even from politicians within the new president’s party. A curious initiative for a president whose father was Hungarian. One wonders: Would Nicolas Sarkozy be president today if there had been an especially strong sense of French national identity in his youth? (The far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen famously questioned Sarkozy’s “foreign” roots in judging his fitness for the presidency.)

Then again, as the historian David Bell has pointed out, part of France’s national identity has always been the melting pot-an even greater and more effective one than the United States. Look at the example of Leon Blum, a completely assimilated Jew who became prime minister in the 1930s; this has not happened in the United States. Sarkozy knows perfectly well that he is a living symbol of an important part of assimilated French “national identity,” so the ministry is likely only to regulate immigration more closely, not to ban it. According to polls, this demand is widely desired by many sectors of the French population, including traditional left-wing groups. It is doubtless one big reason why Sarkozy’s campaign successfully put Le Pen’s National Front out of business.

But that still leaves the matter of “national identity” per se, which nobody in the new government has even tried to define, let alone act on, for the very good reason that the concept is indefinable. Indeed, if French history is any indicator, it is partly intended to be indefinable, for over the centuries the notion of la nation has been asked to do a lot of highly partisan political business. In part, of course, it’s good old-fashioned patriotism, and here the Left quickly came round. Ségolène Royal tried to out-bid Sarkozy by calling for a tricolor on every front porch and La Marseillaise more often on every pair of lips. But beyond that, how to define “national identity”? Consider just the sticky question of religion: Where would Islam fit into France’s present national identity? It is the country’s second largest religion, yet many of its devotees stand steadfastly unassimilable into French culture. Where, for that matter, would Catholicism fit? The République laique has traditionally been far less Christianity-friendly than its sister republic of the United States. (This said, Sarkozy himself, and several of his ministers, are practicing Catholics, a first since de Gaulle. Moreover, as a candidate, he argued for a “return” of Catholicism to the public sphere.)

Interestingly, some conservatives don’t like the phrase “national identity.” Jean-Paul Bled, France’s leading historian of Central Europe, for example, argues-not without reason-that the phrase is a pathetic euphemism for the real matter at issue: national sovereignty and national independence. (Bled is an old-line Gaullist, wary of anything like a European federation.)

In short, to define national identity would be to destroy any hope of rallying unity around the notion. Pierre Nora, France’s great publisher of history, is right when he notes that “nationalism has hidden the nation from us.” In any case, it is highly unlikely that the new ministry will amount to anything scary, even if the very thought of the post-Vichy state defining “identity” remains a bit disconcerting.

National identity is a thing to be intoned, not spelled out, as, for example, when President-elect Sarkozy told the millions watching him on television, “I shall defend the identity and the independence of France.... There is only one victor [tonight], that of a France who does not wish to die, who wishes order but also movement.... [O]nly one victor: the French people who have not given up the battle, and who do not want to remain trapped in immobility and conservatism.”

Yet the unpredictable French have chosen a “conservative” way to achieve “movement”: a deep renewal of their presidential republic, incarnated in a strong leader responsible only to the “nation,” not to parliament (Sarkozy is virtually his own head of government as well as state). But at the same time-and for the first time in their very long history-the French seem to have elected to take some very large and important steps along the path of free-market liberalism. They are doing it in their way, to be sure, but they are doing it with a nod to Europe and a hand outstretched across the Atlantic.

Sarkozy has asked to be judged by the speed and the success of his acts. He will be. It could perhaps be a very hot rentrée, as the French call the September mass return from vacations. But so far there isn’t much sign that any organized group really wants a showdown with a regime that has raised such breathless anticipation and widespread optimism.

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.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2007-06-15 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.