Sarko casts magic spell

A few decades back, when we were young, Joni Mitchell sang of "sitting in a park in Paris, France" but dreaming of California because "I wouldn't want to stay here, it's too old and cold and settled in its ways here."

By Roger Cohen (Globalist)

Published: Sat 19 Jul 2008, 10:17 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Through the big sleep of the Mitterrand and Chirac years, Joni could have come back and written the same lines. France changed, because everything and everyone does, but a remote, monarchical president continued to preside over a country more alarmed than charmed by modernity.

That was before Nicolas Sarkozy, who never saw a habit he didn't want to overturn, became president 14 months ago. Now we have another beautiful singer, who happens to be his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, strumming these lines to him on her new album:

"I gave you my body, my soul and my chrysanthemum/For I am yours/ you are my lord, you are my darling/ you are my orgy/ you are my folly."

Old and settled in its ways? I think not. America's first lady may love her man, but not like this. France has stepped out of hibernation on amphetamines.

Now I know there's a view of Sarkozy as a Bonapartist Caligula, consumed with himself, brooking no dissent, petulant to the point of puerility, and governing in such perpetual motion that he will only see the wall he's condemned to hit when it's too late.

True, Sarkozy is not Saint Augustine, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. I don't like his attempt to subjugate the media — Le Figaro now fawns to a point that's cloying and his control-the-message TV machinations are shameful. I also think the president should open his mind to Turkish membership of the European Union.

But this man is a tonic to his country and the most important European leader of his time.

In the space of a year, he has transformed France's relations with the United States, Israel, its North African neighbours and NATO. On the domestic front, he has got a Socialist leader to confess he's also a liberal, a word long so taboo to the French Left because of its free-market associations that embracing it was worse than admitting incest.

Let's take international matters first. Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union summit — a kind of Club Med Bastille Day bash — had its share of vapid ostentation, but was significant for several reasons. It got the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, in the same room, drew the latter out of isolation, and signaled a new European awareness of how its identity has become inseparable from societies across the "mother sea" that have sent so many of their Muslim sons and daughters northward.

At a deeper level, here was the European Union taking the initiative in its neighbourhood rather than in the familiar fallback reactive mode where critiquing the United States masquerades as policy. The Union for the Mediterranean is a near-empty shell but an important impulse for Europe to think big. I was gratified that a communique said this new venture will be independent from the EU enlargement "accession negotiations." That was a message to Turkey. Thinking big and excluding Turkey from the EU is oxymoronic.

Sarkozy has reached across oceans as well as seas. By breaking political taboos about America, and burying Gaullist posturing by announcing France's return to Nato's military command, he has given France greater room for maneuver. The new French diplomatic mantra is: Join the club to gain more independence.

US mistrust of France is now in eerie abeyance: Universalist France has its day in the sun. Because you can't build a Europe that's divided toward the United States, as Iraq illustrated, his pro-Americanism has aided EU cohesiveness.

In the same way, his warmth towards Israel has given France the room to emerge as a credible Middle Eastern intermediary. At home, where he's unpopular in the polls but less so around the dinner table, Sarkozy has circumvented the 35-hour week by slashing taxes on overtime, freed up universities, downsized the state functionary community (and mentality), spurred small businesses, cut public spending, and set in motion a radical reform aimed at creating a 21st-century army.

By comparison, Gordon Brown in Britain, he of Heathcliffian moodiness, and Angela Merkel in Germany, she of grand coalition paralysis, look second-tier.

As for the Socialist pretender and Paris mayor, Bertrand DelanoÎ, he put "Audacity" in the title of his recent book, nodding to Barack Obama, and called himself a Socialist liberal, nodding to Sarkozy's transformation of the French debate: an interesting trans-Atlantic ideological conflation.

"Will you take me as I am?" Joni also sang. Faced by non-stop Sarko, the world and France have little choice. Overall, that's a good thing. Lovely Joni should check out unsettled France. It's a blast. Ask the premiere dame.

Roger Cohen writes Globalist column in International Herald Tribune

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