Leadership matters

Why even those who can’t stand Sarkozy now sense they need him

Written by New York Times | Published:January 25, 2012 2:55 am

Roger Cohen

In the other election of 2012,there are only two words worth remembering. The first is leadership. The second is change. The rest,as the French say,is du blah-blah.

If the French decide leadership is more important in a time of crisis they will grit their teeth and re-elect Nicolas Sarkozy. If they want change from a president never close to their hearts,they will embrace hope over experience and elect the Socialist candidate,François Hollande.

On the face of it,Hollande should prevail. The unemployment rate,at a 12-year high,is rising toward double figures. Pension reform has been unpopular. The national mood is sullen even by Gallic standards. The euro agonises. The left has not held the presidency since François Mitterrand stepped down 17 years ago. In short,this is the French left’s election to lose. They may just do so.

I visited Paris a week ago,persuaded that Hollande would edge it. I came away thinking Sarkozy is the more likely winner. The president’s political courage is undeniable: A lot of people who can’t stand him now sense they may need him. Hollande,the gentleman who went to the right elite schools, has done nothing to dispel the notion he’s a waverer. In a rambling appeal to voters this month,he managed not to mention the rest of the world apart from a de rigueur condemnation of “unbridled globalisation.” A telling moment came recently when Hollande,in talking about Sarkozy,used the phrase “un sale mec” — roughly,a nasty piece of work. The language provided an insight into his subconscious and that of a wide swathe of the French bourgeoisie. To them Sarkozy is forever the outsider,the upstart,the usurper — a “dirty” climber unworthy of incarnating the French state through the Fifth Republic’s highest office. Not for nothing is French rich in words — arriviste,parvenu — for characters who cut through social barriers to the summit.

So many in France want to see the back of Sarkozy. They dream of a comeuppance for this man of preternatural agitation,but then think: Oh no! Not the left with its indecision,its stale slogans,its colossal “immobilisme” that has somehow preserved class struggle as a tenet when most of the European left — like the German — moved on decades ago.

I mentioned Sarkozy’s courage. I’d say it’s what makes him the most interesting politician in Europe. But before that my caveats: When he panders to Le Pen’s right — the appalling treatment of the Roma,the wrongheaded dismissal of Turkey’s EU candidacy,the ever more restrictive immigration policy — he’s at his worst.

Sarkozy is a doer and taboo-breaker — bringing France back into the integrated command of NATO (and so enabling the successful Libyan mission); declaring that love of America is OK; reforming universities and the pension system against huge resistance; taking on the worthy Libyan cause where Jacques Chirac and Mitterrand would have waved it away (and where Germany shamefully did.)

But Sarkozy’s biggest achievement has been with respect to Germany in the euro crisis,as it turned away from European idealism. Sarkozy persevered. The effort has been faltering,countless mistakes made. But the quiet recent moves of the European Central Bank to flood the market with euros and in effect act as a lender of last resort— contrary to the treaty and despite protracted German resistance — reflect above all an enormous French effort to bring Germany around. Score one — and a big one — for Sarkozy. Leadership matters.

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