Bruce Anderson: Sarkozy doesn't exactly help us to understand French politics

Here is a leader who is setting new standards when it comes to missed opportunities

Monday 23 March 2009 01:00

Politics is about momentum: use it or lose it. A wise politician uses rhetoric to impose his narrative on events, thus marginalising his opponents. This enables him to secure two objectives: to get things done and to win re-election. Churchill as war leader only managed one, but it was the more important one. Mrs Thatcher did both. As for Tony Blair, he imposed his narrative more successfully than anyone since Squealer was conducting the chorus of sheep in Animal Farm. To what end? Iraq apart, what were his achievements. On the domestic front, he set out to be a reformer and ended up running a vastly more expensive version of a mediocre status quo. It was 10 years of missed opportunities.

But Mr Blair can relax. His record in the missed opportunity stakes is being effortlessly broken – by Nicolas Sarkozy. Two years ago, M Sarkozy appeared to be a man of immense promise. Part Jewish, part Hungarian, he was an outsider in a political culture which had come to be dominated by a sclerotic, self-regarding clique. It seemed a good idea to have a President of France who had not been at l'Ecole Nationale D'Administration.

Enarques had been running the country for too long, to little effect. M Sarkozy had told David Cameron how much he admired the Thatcherite economic reforms of the 1980s. Perhaps he would be the man to take on French vested interests and push through the necessary changes. Fat chance. Shortly after his election, he set the tone for the Sarkozy presidency. He paid a gawping visit to Versailles, giving the impression to those who showed him round that this was a first visit. He was shown some apartments which are normally occupied by the Prime Minister. Gawping was replaced by cupidity. "I'll have this," he announced.

Soon afterwards, there was another visit, to the President of Italy. During a half-hour meeting, President Sarkozy's mobile rang four times. On each occasion, he answered it and had a conversation. At the end, the Italian President said there he had organised a press conference. "Conference de Presse," came the reply. "Ca ne vaut pas la peine". So the President of Austria should feel honoured. During his session with M Sarkozy, there were only two mobile phone calls.

French is the language of diplomacy; the French also believe that their politesse sets the standard for diplomatic elegance. Sometimes, this is carried to excess. The French can produce ambassadors whose deportment might have seemed excessively grand at the Congress of Vienna. One feels that even their wives call them "Excellence" or "Monsieur l'Ambassadeur" (to be fair, that is not true of most of the recent Ambassadors in London and certainly not of the current one).

When such diplomatic eminences heard how their President had behaved, they were mortified. Napoleon once described Talleyrand, the greatest of French diplomatists, as "a piece of shit in a silk stocking". Talleyrand merely expressed regret that such a great man should have been so badly brought up. Those exchanges were politeness itself in comparison to the sulphurous comments on M Sarkozy's telephone habits. In the preparations for his State visit to the UK, the diplomatic services of France and Britain were united as never before by a shared anxiety. Could the President be trusted to keep his mobile switched off? If it rang during a State banquet and he answered it, what would Prince Philip do? Wars have resulted from lesser outrages.

It is, however, untrue that all the President's energies are devoted to Carla Bruni. In addition to rudeness and frivolousness, the President infuriates his staff by hyper-activity. That might seem to be a good quality, and so it could be, on one condition: that it were deployed in pursuit of a strategy. But there is no strategy. M Sarkozy has been President for nearly two years. We still do not know what he believes in or what are his plans. He makes it and them up as he goes along. A despairing French diplomat threw up his arms and summarised the Sarkozy regime: "This is no longer the Fifth Republic. It is Louis Quinze and Madame du Barry."

To British observers, French politics seems paradoxical. On the one hand, French politicians can rely on an almost infinite tolerance for the peccadillos of private life. Mistresses, illegitimate children, bribes, diamonds from African dictators: the voters merely shrug their shoulders and utter that most eloquent of Gallic phrases; "C'est normal." It is not only the perquisites of office which escape resentment.

The lack of indignation extends to activities which would strike us as seriously criminal. The relationship between France's foreign aid programmes in Francophone Africa and subsidies for political parties – and politicians – is interesting. Admittedly, there were a couple of resignations after French secret agents sank the Rainbow Warrior. In Britain, the government would have fallen and a number of senior collars would have been felt. In France, the principal problem was – that the agents had been caught. In Parisian political circles, it is widely accepted that President Mitterrand commissioned at least two murders.

Yet this latitude does not extend to the business of government. There, the French feel no obligation to give their consent to measures they disapprove of. There is always an appeal from the Assemblée Nationale to the high court of the streets. Even de Gaulle faced a near-insurrection. Jacques Chirac was a much easier target. His feeble and intermittent attempts at reform were regularly disrupted, and ultimately deterred, by protests and demonstrations.

As President Chirac approached his unlamented retirement, a former British Ambassador to France gave his verdict; "He has not done anything". (At least he has not been accused of murder.) But on present trends, M Sarkozy will make M Chirac look like a statesman.

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