PARIS - The world financial crisis, swine flu, al-Qaida, Pakistan, the menacing Taliban – all seem quite remote here as spring makes this, the world’s most beautiful country, even lovelier.
There are none of the assorted panics here that one finds in North America. In fact, the French, who have been lectured for decades by the Anglo-Saxons, are watching America’s financial mess and Britain’s economic nosedive with a certain quiet amusement and satisfaction.
Even so, France’s notoriously ill-tempered voters are again in a cranky mood. Recent polls show that President Nicholas Sarkozy’s popularity continues to fall.
Two years after he took office, over half of voters disapprove of Sarkozy’s record in tackling France’s economic and social problems, though they still express admiration for his energy, decisiveness, and courage. Some polls even put his public popularity as low as 36%.
These days, that’s not so bad. France has withstood the worst of the world financial crisis thanks to its avoidance of the debt orgy that sank the US and Britain. The huge Societe General bank has lost billions, but the French financial system remains sound – at least so far.
France’s generous social programs, long derided by US conservatives, have prevented much of the misery American workers are suffering. In good times, these programs and restrictions on firing workers were a drag on the economy. But when the big rainy day hit, they worked.
Another factor that softened the economic blow against France was the fact that 52% of French work either directly or indirectly for the government. Government workers hardly ever get fired.
Not surprisingly, many of Sarkozy’s ambitious plans to modernize France’s economy, cut taxes, curb union power, and reduce the bloated state sector have not succeeded. His reforms of France’s creaky judicial and educational system have been more successful.
French want reform, but they don’t want to change anything, sacrifice any of their comfortable lifestyles, or forgo government services. For example, French are enjoying two long consecutive weekends to warm up for the sacred 4-6 week paid national summer vacation.
The president’s hyperactivity continues without pause as he ricochets from one new cause to another. Sarko’s critics say he confuses movement and talk with achievements. His intense nervous energy makes many French uneasy.
France prefers its presidents detached and regal, like the late, great Charles DeGaulle or Francois Mitterand. France’s most admired and respected contemporary figure remains former conservative president, Jacques Chirac. The avuncular Chirac, with this theatrical oratory and air of `tout va bien’ made French feel good, even many on the left.
They clearly miss him. So do I. It was always great fun to listen to Chirac’s florid speeches and see his rubbery face, a joy for cartoonists and puppeteers, assume amazing shapes and contours. Madame Chirac was everyone’s proper, gracious `maman.’
Sarkozy has lots of what North Africans call `good baraka.’ His Hungarian and Jewish roots have not hurt him, even among usually anti-foreign and anti-Semitic French voters on the political right. Sarko’s ardent support of Israel quickly endeared him to the United States and France’s Jewish community, western Europe’s largest.
Sarkozy’s early public personal dramas and annoying showing off were sternly curbed by his new wife, the exquisite Carla Bruni, who is Sarko’s most important asset. La Belle Carla remains hugely popular in spite of media hysteria over her zesty past.
France’s Socialist center-left opposition has collapsed into bickering. An ugly cat fight continues between militant leftist leader, Martine Aubry, who reminds many French of a school matron they hated, and former presidential candidate, Segolene Royal. Though smart, many see her as a lightweight and no match for Sarko. France’s once mighty left has gone from being a national menace to a national joke.
The far right National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen has almost evaporated. Sarkozy and his center-right UDF party ran off with most of the far right’s votes. Other smaller parties, including various Communist factions, are inconsequential.
So, for France, l’état remains Monsieur le President Sarkozy. Luckily for him, he also has a brainy, capable, but self-effacing prime minister, Francois Fillon, who picks up the piece of broken crockery left behind by the rampaging Sarko.
That’s fine with Sarkozy, who far more enjoys statesmanship than dealing with France’s curse, rioting fishermen and farmers, thuggish truck drivers, and hostile transport unions, all of whom routinely blackmail the state and can paralyze France within hours.
Organized French labor and the nation’s large numbers of permanent malcontents are expected to take to the streets in the Fall, once again paralyzing transport and blocking major roads. Prices in France keep rising and the paternal government is flat out of money to buy off the unions. Sarko will have to pull a rabbit of his hat or consider raising taxes, a sure-fire riot-starter in this always volatile nation.
Sarkozy did a commendable job as last year’s rotating president of the European Union, and continues to be the EU’s primary force and voice. Mideast peace, relations with Russia, the Caucasus, gas, oil, trade, making nice with President Obama, NATO, TV ads, nothing escapes his omnivorous attention.
The American-loving Sarkozy, often called `France’s neoconservative,’ has also re-integrated France as a full member of NATO, ending the half century of aloofness begun by President De Gaulle. But Paris got only token rewards for again putting its armed forces under full NATO (read, American) command.
Many French are distressed that Sarkozy sacrificed France’s independence and national prestige in an effort to get back into Washington’s good books after decades of estrangement. This reintegration into NATO will do nothing to end five decades of Americans sneering at France’s military forces.
Now, Sarko is turning his volcanic energies to the Pharonic project of transforming Paris from a city of 2 million into an integrated metropolis of 12 million by joining the historic core with surrounding satellite cities and towns. New rail transport lines, roads, water transport, and monumental new edifices are planned. Where the money will come from remains a mystery. `Tant pis!’ Paris must be as big as London or New York.
This will be Paris’ biggest renovation since the ruthless city prefect, Baron Haussman, razed large parts of the ancient city 150 years ago, creating the modern Paris of wide boulevards and stately buildings.
Wits here say the new city may be rechristened, `Sarkoville.’
Monsieur le président has three more years to serve in his term. As of now, Sarko has prevented any new rivals from within his party. He has neatly co-opted many luminaries of the left by offering them cabinet positions or sinecures.
Hence Sarko’s most important rival remains Sarkozy himself. One day, this perpetual motion machine may break down.