France's Great Communicator?
Anyone following the Republican presidential primary knows that Ronald Reagan nostalgia has spread like a wildfire through Dutch's beloved desiccate Simi Valley. However, those seeking a Reaganesque reformer among the McCains, Giulianis and Romneys of the GOP might be looking on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
"There is a demand for change", French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in his inaugural address. "Never have the risks of inertia been so great for France as they are now in this world in flux, where everyone across the world is trying to change quicker than the others, where any delay can be fatal."
But as the Élysée's newest resident's post-election honeymoon comes to an end, campaign slogans will no longer satisfy the electorate. Whether or not "Sarko" can affect change remains an open question.
Patrick Chamorel, a former Sarkozy campaign adviser and visiting professor of government at Claremont-McKenna Collage, addressed an audience and made invoked the Reagan comparison at The Nixon Center on Wednesday about the challenges that lie ahead.
Sarkozy won on an agenda of change, but on the right, "where there was an immense political space", Chamorel said. "The left is bankrupt intellectually."
Although Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party did not achieve the predicted landslide victory in the June 18 parliamentary elections-possibly because of the transfer of some payroll taxes to the value-added tax-it still became the first incumbent government to earn re-election in three decades. But the Socialist Party's gains won't make much of a difference in France's parliamentary system, Chamorel said.
"The lesson of this is that this majority is its own best worst enemy", Chamorel added. "The lesson for Sarkozy is that he feels pressure to reform quickly and all at once."
But where to start? Jacques Chirac bequeaths to his successor 8.3 percent unemployment, torpid economic growth, unresolved social disenfranchisement in the banlieue and a failed EU Constitution.
But, much like Reagan in 1980, Sarkozy has popular support across the ideological spectrum, with Sarko leftists playing the role of Reagan Democrats.
However, there are crucial differences between the France of today and the America of yesteryear that could obstruct the president's legislative agenda. While American conservatives wax poetic about the new ideas that fueled the "Reagan Revolution", Sarkozy's planned reforms go against his country's ideological grain. Furthermore, the French do not see themselves ensnared in a malaise comparable to that which Jimmy Carter's presidency engendered. Perhaps most dangerously for Sarkozy, "France has a revolutionary protest tradition", Chamorel said.
Sarkozy's proposed economic reforms-lowering taxes, making the labor market more flexible, instilling a greater entrepreneurial and risk-taking culture and decentralizing university management-could reinvigorate that protest tradition. To forestall a popular backlash Sarkozy has brought opposition members into his cabinet and established direct dialogue with the unions. He met with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen this week, the first French leader to do so in over three decades, perhaps indicative of his desire to be France's own "Great Communicator."
And like in Reagan's first term, France's powerful unions might challenge Sarkozy's reform plans. The unions will face the choice of reforming the economy with Sarkozy or confronting him, like the air traffic controllers did to Reagan in 1981. Sarkozy's efforts to reform France's universities could also bring college students into the streets in protest, creating chaos akin to what Reagan faced in California's universities in the late 1960s, when he famously quipped that the protestors "act like Tarzan, look like Jane, and smell like Cheetah."
On foreign policy, Sarkozy "is likely to find the greatest challenges on the European stage", Chamorel said, first and foremost with the EU Constitution and Turkey's ascension to the EU, which Sarkozy opposes. Rebuilding the Franco-American relationship will be a balancing act, given Bush's unpopularity in France and Sarkozy's need to maintain good relations with both Bush and his successor.
Ultimately, Sarkozy is his own man and no Reagan wannabe. He has promised to move France forward through conservatism, innovation and reform, not retrospection and nostalgia. Start the clock.
Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.