Monday, August 06, 2007

Sarkozy Surfs the U.S.A.

Published: August 5, 2007


Of all the tradition-trampling surprises of the Sarkozy administration - the proper term because its model is American - none has been bolder than the French president's decision to forsake the charms of the Côte d'Azur and vacation in the United States.

In a little more than two months, Nicolas Sarkozy and his governing cohorts have called for a "rehabilitation of money," urged the French to work rather than think, cited rap music lyrics as showing the "taste of the young for success," abolished the traditional Bastille Day presidential address, and mocked the 35-hour week.

François Mitterrand, who hewed to the regal interpretation of the Fifth Republic's highest office, once opined that "a president must know how to be bored." Advice lost on Sarkozy, for whom action is the essence of politics. He has been such a whirl of activity that diplomats at the Quai d'Orsay have taken to observing that he has "a nuclear reactor in his belly."

Even, it seems, while on vacation. Here is the French president, a few days into his lakeside holiday in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, jogging down a forest trail, chatting to journalists, swimming, cavorting, strutting his stuff.

Mon Dieu! So much for "la France profonde," the deep or essential France with which former presidents felt they must commune in their summer breaks.

When De Gaulle headed for his beloved Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing went fishing in the Auvergne, and Mitterrand sojourned at Latché or with his mistress in Gordes, and Jacques Chirac stayed at the summer presidential residence in the Fort of Brégançon, they were making statements about their power: its roots, its latitude and its eternal essence.

Goodbye to all that. The world has moved on. Brands replaced mysticism. France got globalized. Sarkozy is not about to pretend otherwise. His aim is to shake his country from tired habits. Any means are good.

Over the past quarter-century or so, I have clung to my youthful Francophilia. But it has been tried. I grew tired of the stultifying politics that posed Gaul as some grandiose counterweight to Anglo-Saxon hegemony; lost my patience with French portrayals of the United States as the land of cruel cowboy capitalism; became exasperated with the hypocrisy of Parisian hand-wringing about high unemployment; and laughed out loud at French notions of rolling back globalization.

As a result, Sarkozy feels like a breath of fresh air. Clearly I am not alone in believing his taboo-breaking is salutary: the French president's approval ratings are soaring. They are about double those of President George W. Bush, who may find time to see Sarko this month, if the two men ever get off their exercise bikes. With some coaching from Tony Blair, Sarkozy has intuited that politics these days is about style. Economic power lies with central bankers, global corporations and high-rolling masters of the universe. Military power is constrained by mutually assured destruction and the 24-hour news cycle. What remains are image, perception and identity.

Sarkozy is signaling many things: the passage of power from a Cold-War fashioned gerontocracy to a 50-something generation, the possibility of France exerting influence through modern magnetism rather than aloofness, the end of a form of presidential power that consisted of balancing rather than acting, and the shredding of debilitating nostrums about the United States.

Of course, some people are complaining, including the Socialist deputy, René Dosière, who wants to know how Sarkozy can afford the lakefront estate of Michael Appe, a former Microsoft executive.

But I suspect Sarkozy has got it right in his Microsoft vacation option. He and his wife, Cécilia, are playing the Kennedy card. They know more than 900,000 French people head for the United States every year. They recognize the draw of America's glamour. They are breaking barriers of silence the French were ready to break.

The Sarko effect will not last forever. Consider how Gordon Brown's bushy-browed seriousness now seems welcome merely because it is not the grinning charm of Blair. Political shelf lives have shrunk in the age of round-the-clock exposure.

The French will want to see results, first in overcoming high unemployment, but also in the extension of French global standing. Ending taboos has been heady. But the political "rentrée" of September may be arduous.

Still, Sarkozy has what it takes to outmaneuver the opposition. He has already ensured the creation of a new course at the Sorbonne: the semiotics of presidential vacations. That, I suspect, will be the least of his achievements.