John Lichfield: President Sarkozy's new philosophy for the world

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Whatever his ex-wife may say about him, you have to admire Nicolas Sarkozy's energy and cheek. Not only has he found himself, in record time, a glamorous new wife-to-be. He has also invented a new political ideology which will (he says) set France, and the world, on a rational course towards the salvation of the human race.

President Sarkozy promises that he will "create a politics of civilisation to establish France as the soul of the new renaissance which the world needs". After only seven months in office, the French president has not exactly abandoned everything that he has said and done until now. He has, however, turned much of his previous rhetoric on its head.

The President who was going to make France "work more to earn more" is now promising to "re-humanise society". The president who promised to make the French richer –"I will be the president of purchasing power" – has now embraced a new ideology of "solidarity... quality of life...."

The centre-right president has even commissioned two leftish-leaning, Nobel-winning economists to devise a way of supplanting Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the true measure of human happiness and political success. Cynics might say that this idea, for a GDC or Gross Domestic Contentment register, is an attempt to change the rules of a game which M. Sarkozy was about to lose.

On the other hand, President Sarkozy – a brilliant, instinctive politician, despite his faults and oddities – may have a point.

The global zeitgeist has changed. The ideology of markets-always-know-best, and bankers-rule which has dominated the world since 1979-1980 is increasingly discredited. The idea that economic growth can be sustained indefinitely and must always be the measure of national achievement is under challenge from, if nothing else, the finite resources of the planet. So what does M.Sarkozy mean by the "politics of civilization"? Is it his own idea? Should we take it seriously? Is this new, somewhat leftish approach by a rightish politician the first sign, as some of his senior supporters fear – that M. Sarkozy is being re-programmed by his highly intelligent, left-leaning wife-to-be, Carla Bruni?

The "politics of civilisation" is borrowed from a brilliant, octogenarian French philosopher and sociologist, Edgar Morin. As a new way of looking at the world's problems, it deserves to be taken very seriously. As an instant new political ideology or route-map, it has its limitations.

M. Morin himself is somewhat bemused by the President's abrupt decision to steal his idea.

"The President is an elastic personality, always in movement. He hasn't grasped yet how radical an idea a "politics of civilisation" would be," M. Morin said. "What is going through the head of the President and his advisers is a complete mystery to me. Either this is just verbiage which means nothing or he has undergone some kind of profound conversion." Edgar Morin, 87, is one of France's most admired thinkers, a wartime resistance hero of Jewish origin, a former Communist, who has made his reputation with a series of books about the complexity of nature, the human mind and, er, everything. The phrase - the "politics of civilisation" – comes from an essay, Pour une politique de civilisation, which he wrote with Sami Nair in 1997.

The book has been largely ignored in France but has influenced politicians – mostly of the moderate, new Left – in Italy, Spain and Latin America. M. Morin argues for a new approach to politics, replacing an endless drive for economic growth, with a quest for well-being and contentment. The search for "quality" of life should replace the search for "quantity". The obsession with "growth" in the abstract, driven by markets, should give way to targeted growth and targeted shrinkage of the undesirable and the unsustainable, from cars to air travel. Crudely, Morin's "politics of civilisation" is a little green and a little pink. "Quantity has not brought the promised quality of life," he writes. "The appetite for accumulation... has not produced the happiness of which we dreamed."

As a new way of looking at the world, M. Morin's ideas are interesting, even compelling.

As a manual of practical politics, they might suit the British Liberal Democrats or the German greens. How do you sell such an approach to an electorate which has been taught to want more of everything? What on earth will be made of such ideas by the centre-right French president, a man hailed (quite wrongly) by the British right as a Gallic Thatcher?

President Sarkozy, newly green, newly pink, and maybe newly-married, will take over the presidency of the European Union in July. Watch this space.

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