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The New English Review

 

Sarkozy Must Ring the Changes

May 17, 2007

By Theodore Dalrymple

A change of rulers, says the Romanian proverb, is the joy of fools: the corollary, of course, being that, because nothing ever changes very much, at any rate as a result of what rulers do, it is also the despair of fools.

There is, after all, many a slip between a policy proposal and an actual reform, and those who want to maintain the status quo in France - and they are many - still have plenty of ways, besides the ballot box, of making their wishes known and enforcing them.

There is little doubt that Nicolas Sarkozy, as President, will face very considerable obstacles to real reform. All too often in modern states, it is the central government that proposes but the bureaucracy that disposes. The power of the state bureaucracy accounts for the immobilism of many states in Europe, and for the sense of impotence and despair among their electorates. It doesn't matter what anyone says, the ship of state continues sailing slowly but inexorably in the same direction.

Sarko has successfully presented himself to the French people as someone who can change the disastrous direction in which France is now floating, because he is so different from the previous successful contenders for the presidency of the Fifth Republic.

Apart from anything else, his appearance does not equip him by nature for the role of legitimist monarch, let alone Sun King: fit and tough-looking, he resembles nothing so much as an off-duty member of the CRS (the feared French riot police), uncomfortably dressed in a suit for a family function such as a christening. He really ought to be out on the streets cracking the heads of a few rioters.

He is famously short-tempered and has a knack for choosing the word exactly calculated to inflame passions. When he used the popular abusive term “la racaille” to describe French thugs, the word reverberated around the world, and the rioters reacted with the fury of the justly accused. (When he used that word, whose frankness came as a relief to many in France, my sister-in-law said she would vote for him.)

But the question at issue was why the sons of immigrants should have turned out to be such an angry rabble in a polity whose mission statement is, after all, liberty, equality and fraternity. Reflection on that issue, and others, led Sarko to the conclusion that something was rotten in the state of France, despite its continuing, but superficial, douceur de la vie (the French are by far the largest consumers of tranquillisers in the world).

The public finances were a mess, and France was mortgaging its future to pay for train drivers and others to retire on generous pensions at the age of 50. The 35-hour week was predicated on the idiotic idea that one man's labour could simply replace another's, so that when a worker went home early another could step into his shoes and continue or complete the task - and thus France's intractable unemployment would decline, as the unemployed supposedly took up the slack.

In short, both Fran�ois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac turned Madame de Pompadour's witticism, apr�s nous, le d�luge, into state policy. Even quite a lot of Sarko's supporters fear him, however, and suspect him of Bonapartism (the cult of Napoleon notwithstanding, two Napoleons, uncle and nephew, have been more than enough). He is a driven man who, until recently, exuded political monomania and an ambitiousness too strong to hide.

He doesn't have the literary pretensions of a cultivated cynic such as Mitterrand to soften his image. Some of his pronouncements about the need for more state-funded mosques are distinctly odd, and not what one might expect of a man who needed to steal some of Jean-Marie Le Pen's clothes.

On the other hand, he is the only politician who has aroused any enthusiasm because he is the only one who offers change or even appears to understand that change is necessary. France still has many advantages, if only it could take advantage of them: its workforce is much more productive, and vastly better educated than the British. Sarkozy is like a French Roosevelt: he has understood that the only thing the French have to fear is their fear of change.

It remains to be seen whether he has the stomach for the fight that reform always occasions in France. The chronic problems of the status quo are largely kept out of sight, whereas the opposition to change will manifest itself very soon and very conspicuously on the Boulevard St Germain.

For years, the government has always surrendered to a well-heeled or economically influential mob; a great deal now depends on whether Sarko turns out to be Edward Heath or Margaret Thatcher.

If the latter, France will soon far out-distance Britain in prosperity; and, much as the young in the banlieues may hate him, and set fire to a few cars to express their hatred, he is the only hope of averting the much more serious violence that is inevitable in the absence of reform.

Original Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3639746/Sarkozy-must-ring-the-changes.html

 

 
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