Apr 6th 2009

The Limits of Bonapartism

by David Rieff

David Rieff is the author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention. His most recent book, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir, is about his mother, the novelist and critic Susan Sontag.

PARIS - After four decades, France has returned to NATO's unified military command. At a stroke, President Nicolas Sarkozy overturned one of the pillars of French policy - and of the legacy of Charles de Gaulle, the founder of Sarkozy's own political party.

The decision is consistent with the way Sarkozy has governed since his election in 2007. Whether he is seeking to reform France's judicial system, redrawing its administrative map, proposing a new alliance of Mediterranean countries, or seeming to end France's ambiguous foreign policy of being both aligned and not aligned with the United States, Sarkozy is nothing if not ambitious.

The problem is that far too many of Sarkozy's decisions have proved purely symbolic, like the ill-fated Mediterranean Union; badly conceived, such as judicial reform, which is opposed by virtually the entire legal profession; or nakedly self-serving, like the administrative reform, which somehow managed to abolish only those departments and regional administrations controlled by the opposition Socialists.

Many in Sarkozy's governing UMP have become increasingly public in expressing their unhappiness with his decision-making method. In effect, rather than according serious room for decision-making to his prime minister, François Fillon, or to Fillon's cabinet, Sarkozy has arrogated almost every lever of power to himself and his advisers within the Élysée Palace.

Indeed, few informed observers doubt that Sarkozy's chief foreign policy adviser, Jean-David Levitte, has far more influence than France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Likewise, on matters of domestic policy, the interior minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, has nothing close to the agenda-setting power of Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's longtime aide and director-general of the President's office.

For all the authoritarian habits of de Gaulle or François Mitterrand, Sarkozy's personalization of the presidency is unprecedented in the history of the Fifth Republic. Sarkozy makes little secret of his disdain for members of his own party, luring Socialists like Kouchner and Rama Yade, the junior minister for foreign affairs, into his cabinet, and naming retired Socialist politicians like former Prime Minister Michel Rocard to head national commissions and represent France in international treaty negotiations. Sarkozy can afford to thumb his nose at his party, given the total collapse of the opposition Socialists, who will almost certainly lose the 2012 election.

If Sarkozy governed effectively, such political and institutional departures might seem like a breath of fresh air in a society whose institutions seem increasingly ill-suited to the challenges of a multi-ethnic and post-industrial society (even though dirigiste France has conserved its industrial base better than many other rich countries). This was how many who supported Sarkozy's presidential bid viewed him. Despite policy differences, Sarkozy would be for France what Margaret Thatcher was for Britain: someone who would lead the country out of its impasse, conserving the best aspects of dirigisme but finally giving entrepreneurs room to grow, cracking down on crime, and reforming education.

But Sarkozy has not governed effectively, as his party's disenchantment with him and polling data make abundantly clear. The manic character of his presidency - initiative spilling into initiative, each being the transformative solution to the problem at hand, all opposition denounced as lies, bad faith, and cowardice - has worn thin.

On a number of issues, notably wages, liberalization of employment rules, and reform of the judiciary and of secondary education, programs announced with tremendous fanfare have had to be delayed or withdrawn. Almost invariably, Sarkozy has blamed the minister in question, and then moved on to the next subject to strike his interest. In the meantime, his obsession with dominating the daily news cycle, no matter how flimsy the pretext, continues unabated. He has even appeared at crime scenes - not urban riots, but private crimes of passion, where no reason of state could possibly warrant the presence of the President of the Republic.

Given the pathetic state of the Socialist opposition, it is difficult to see what price, if any, Sarkozy will pay for his record in office. But this style of government - essentially an electoral campaign, not a government - virtually guarantees that almost nothing of real importance can be accomplished.

At a recent press conference, US President Barack Obama remarked that he was loath to comment immediately on matters of great public importance before being absolutely sure that he knew - and knew what he thought about - the subject in question. Many French wish that such self-discipline could rub off on Sarkozy. Given his temperament, however, that hardly seems likely. As a result, an administration in which many had placed high hopes is lapsing into demagoguery and ineffectiveness.


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