As inventors of the suffix ” ‘ism” to describe political styles, the French have always liked to honour or disparage their presidents by attaching an ism to their names.
It was thus that we had Gaullism, a school of paternalistic politics founded by General Charles De Gaulle. Later, we had Giscardism, named after Valery Giscard d’Estaing, depicting a mushy centrism in which left and right came together to play the accordion. Francois Mitterrand gave his name to Mitterandism, a cocktail of socialism, conspiratorial politics and corruption.
Jacques Chirac was too much of a non-entity in terms of ideas to inspire an ” ‘ism” . The most he could do was to become the father of Chiraquie, a term that depicts the worst kind of cronyism, corruption and cynicism that a mature democracy can tolerate. Not surprisingly, Chirac and his last Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin are facing the judges on a range of criminal charges.
Hitherto , a French president needed at least two years in office before an ” ‘ ism” was attached to his name. Thus, Nicolas Sarkozy is an exception. Though he has not yet marked his first 100 days as President, commentators are already talking of “Sarkozyism.”
What are the key features of Sarkozyism, assuming that the term is valid?
The most immediately observable feature of Sarkozyism is the new president’s activism. De Gaulle and Mitterrand always kept a distance, designed to depict them as Olympian demigods. George Pompidou, who succeeded De Gaulle, was too sick for most of his presidency to go beyond the minimum activity required. Giscard d’Estaing descended the mountain occasionally to have a meal with “an average family” while television cameras rolled. Chirac alternated between moments of hyperactivity and total lethargy like a butterfly jumping from plant to plant.
Sarkozy, however, has hit the road running. He seems to be everywhere all the time. In less than three months, he has visited a dozen countries in Europe and Africa, met two dozen foreign leaders, made over 30 major speeches in various parts of France, and inter-acted with hundreds of officials, academics, trade unionists, political party leaders, and businessmen on issues of foreign and domestic policies.
Abandoning the tradition under which the French president assumes a certain air of mysticism, Sarkozy has tried to model himself after Scandinavian government leaders.
Immediately after his election victory, he walked to a restaurant for an informal dinner with friends, including a pop star.
Thus, he broke a tradition under which French president-elects secluded themselves after their victory, supposedly to communicate with “the soul of the nation”.
The day after victory, TV viewers were astonished to see Sarkozy in jeans and loafers, carrying his suitcase into a nondescript car and driving away for a four-day Mediterranean cruise vacation. Worse still, Sarko, as everyone calls him, did not choose one of France’s numerous resorts. Instead, he went to Malta.
Sarko’s attempt at demystifying the French presidency does not stop as his donning of jeans or daily jogging rounds in the streets of Paris.
He has made what is the most serious attempt at breaking the traditional left-right divide in French politics. He has brought four Socialists into his Cabinet in key positions, including Bernard Kouchner, the most popular French politician, as Foreign Minister. These are joined by four centrists, one of them as Defence Minister. As a further sign of “opening”, Sarko has asked his parliamentary majority to choose an opposition figure to preside over the key Committee on Economy and Finance.
Sarko has also honoured his pre-election pledge to provide parity for women in Cabinet positions. He has not tried to play the numbers game by putting women in subaltern positions. For the first time, key ministries such as Justice, Finance and Economy, and Culture are headed by women.
Trying to create a government that “resembles France”, Sarko has included several politicians of immigrant origin in his Cabinet. One, Mrs. Rachida Dati, of North African origin, has become Minister of Justice and Lord Privy Seal.
Sarko has done something even more significant.
He has relinquished the president’s power to fill thousands of key posts- ranging from prefects of the provinces and ambassadors to heads of corporations in which the state still holds blocs of shares. Mitterrand and Chirac used the system to distribute the plum jobs among friends and hangers-on. Sarko wants to make all key appointments subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval.
Because the existing French Constitution gives parliament little real power, Sarko has appointed a bipartisan commission to work out ideas for reform. Those close to his thinking say he is seeking a presidential system in which the post of prime minister would be abolished, allowing the president to appear in parliament as head of the executive.
It is, of course, too early to know how Sarko’s style will work with the French who have been used to an almost regal presidency and taught to tolerate the worst kind of grace-and-favour politics at the top.
Sarko’s attempt at changing the vocabulary of French politics may prove more significant than his stylistic reforms.
He has brought back words such as merit, hard work, competition, innovation, enterprise, self-reliance, freedom, and toughness. These, he hopes, will replace or at least complement the traditional “magic lexicon” of French politics made of such words and phrases as solidarity, sharing, social justice, acquired rights, and collective endeavours. He preaches the central role of the family in society and upholds marriage as the ideal model of couplehood.
He promises to put the state on the side of the victims of crimes rather than the criminals who have so far been regarded as victims of “social injustice.”
Sarko has promised to regulate flow of immigrants into France, through a system of “chosen immigration”, that is to say letting in only the skilled peoples that France needs for its further development. He insists that those who wish to become French citizens should love France and adopt her values. One of Sarko’s favourite slogans is ” France: Love her, or leave her!”
He says no one should expect to earn more and live better without working harder and producing more. He has proposed laws that to ban secondary picketing and prevent trade unions from holding the public hostage during strikes. Unions will not be able to start strikes without the approval of their members. Striking workers will no longer receive wages for days lost. The sacrosanct French civil service is to be subjected to massive cuts; one out of every two civil servants who retire will not be replaced.
Laws that prevent the French from working overtime to earn more will be abolished.
A massive reform of universities is designed to transform them from factories printing diplomats into genuine centres of learning where academic credentials are awarded through competitive examinations.
Describing political correctness as the bane of serious debate, Sarko has refused to ” apologise” for France’s imperial past and role in the slave trade. In Algiers, where President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has been refusing to sign a treaty of friendship with France, because Paris did not apologise for its colonial past, Sarko ended the stalemate by stating that he did not want a treaty. ” Friends don’t need treaties,” he quipped.
Sarko says his two political models are the late US President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. What matters is that he is the first major politician to offer a genuinely conservative programme to the French. So far, most French seems to like what he is offering. The latest polls show that, as he heads for his first 100 days in office, Sarko’s job approval is around 70 per cent.