WASHINGTONNicolas Sarkozy, the neophyte French president who can’t keep still, has already been likened to Napoleon Bonaparte. Set aside visions of Sarko invading Egypt or retreating from Moscow and you get to the kernel of truth in this comparison: he wants to trash the old order.
The presidency of the French Fifth Republic, built for Charles de Gaulle in 1958, was always the most monarchical of democratic institutions. It was conceived to allow a national hero to deliver France from its Algerian nemesis and imbued with something of Louis XIV’s crisp view: “L’état, c’est moi,” or “I am the state.”
Sarkozy has long indicated his impatience with this regal presidency, once comparing his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, to an out-of-touch French monarch on the Revolution’s eve. In a relentless road show since taking office in May, he has trampled tradition, abandoned aloofness and targeted taboos.
The performance has been exhausting to watch — suggestive of an unscarred first-term Tony Blair on amphetamines. But it has produced results. Among them are new forms of parliamentary oversight of the presidency and a bipartisanship that has allowed opposition Socialists, like Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, into high office.
Above all, Sarkozy has redefined presidential style, doing the unthinkable by vacationing in Wolfeboro, N. H., alongside millionaires. Money has never been a thing to display in France. That was the vulgar Yankee way.
To grasp the enormity of all this, imagine President Bush abandoning Texan brush for a three-week sojourn in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
As it happened, Bush showed up at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., to meet Sarkozy. The choreography was blown when Cécilia, the volatile first lady of France, failed to show (illness was professed, a tiff widely assumed). Still, the presence of Bush’s father signaled a desire to bury Iraqi bitterness and return to the good times of the former president’s “Europe whole and free.”
French-American relations are always complex. Seldom have two countries been more reluctant, or stubborn, allies. The universalizing ambitions of both nations, their thirst to embody and spread the ennobling values of mankind, lead to tensions at the best of times. When things go south, as they did with Iraq, you get freedom fries and other less trivial forms of vilification.
So a warming of relations is good news if you believe, as I do, that when the trans-Atlantic bond is broken, the world grows more unstable. Still, the ironies of the amiable Maine picnic were hard to swallow. On one end of the corn on the cob you had a French president who seems determined to make his office more accountable, more accessible, more open, and invoking American-style checks and balances to achieve that.
On the other, you had an American president who, in the name of the war on terror, has, with Dick Cheney, been bent on placing the authority of the White House as far as possible beyond the offsetting power of the legislative and judicial branches.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late historian, found in Nixon the villain of his 1973 book “The Imperial Presidency,” but thought Bush had gone further still in pursuit of a Caesarist democracy.
Schlesinger discerned in Nixon “the all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press.”
Sound familiar? The Bush presidency has shown contempt for due process, placed “illegal enemy combatants” in unacceptable limbo, fired politically recalcitrant federal prosecutors, dreamed up a bizarre oversight-free definition of the vice presidency, resorted to warrantless surveillance and disdained Congress’ constitutional role.
The price of keeping America safe, Bush would argue. But the real price has been the tarnishing of the country and consequent erosion of its ability to coax other nations to its views and objectives. American isolation in Iraq has been devastating.
Which brings us back to universal ambitions. France under a president descended from the heights seems more at ease in the world, attuned to globalization and attractive because less remote. The U.S. under Bush has seen its magnetism dimmed as the commander in chief has built his fortress of executive privilege.
To the next U.S. president will fall the huge task of restoring America’s international standing. I wonder whether a dynastic succession back to the House of Clinton as if all we had were Tudors and Stuarts would be the best way of stripping the regal and so returning the country to itself and the world.