A review of Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century, by Nicolas Sarkozy

When France's political star and center-right presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that his latest book be released in midsummer, when all of France takes off to the beach, his publisher was skeptical. But Sarkozy was proven right: Témoignage [Testimony] became one of the summer's bestsellers. Such success is not merely a reflection of Sarkozy's celebrity, controversial ideas, and polarizing personality; nor is it due simply to timing—the April 2007 presidential election looms. It is a measure of the French electorate's state of despair and its yearning for new ideas and new directions.

Témoignage follows Libre [Free], a political autobiography written during Sarkozy's years in the political wilderness where he was exiled for having backed a Gaullist rival to Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy's former mentor, in the first round of the 1995 presidential election. His new book, however, avoids polemics and settling scores and barely touches upon his record as Minister of Interior and Minister of Finance, or his presidency of the UMP [Union for a Popular Movement], France's main center-right party. Rather, in Témoignage, Sarkozy offers an interpretation of France's malaise and sketches a way forward for his country, touching on such vexed questions as immigration, the welfare state, and foreign policy. His central idea is that France's political elites have failed their country by refusing to face reality and to institute necessary reforms.

In his view, what France faces is nothing less than a "crisis of democracy." (All translations from the book are my own.) That crisis has been compounded by the recent social and political upheavals that have shaken France—e.g., the extreme nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen's second-place finish in the 2002 presidential election, the defeated referendum on the E.U. constitution, the riots in the banlieues, and youth demonstrations against labor flexibility.

Sarkozy identifies two causes of his country's persistent distress. The first is "a Right that apologizes for not being the Left." During his political exile in 1999-2001, Sarkozy became convinced that his center-right camp needed to redefine its core doctrine to bring it in line with other Western conservative parties. In his words, "Society wants to return to more traditional values on the Right and not to a Right that wants to be the Left." At the same time, he insists paradoxically that "progress is on the Right, conservatism on the Left." This intellectual and strategic breakthrough has allowed Sarkozy single-handedly to renew the style and content of French politics since 2002.

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The second cause of the French malaise is the inability of the country's political elites to devise, explain, and conduct reforms. France's problems keep getting worse, fueling the burgeoning sense of fatalism. Sarkozy's approach to immigration and assimilation, among the most difficult of these problems, can perhaps best be seen in how he dealt one night with abanlieue beset by youth violence. Insulted by hundreds of hooligans, he led a police fight lasting several hours to recapture a lawless, no-go area. A Muslim woman called to him from her window: "Mr. Sarkozy, rid us of this scum [racaille]; we can't take it anymore." "Yes, Madam, this is what I am here for, I will rid you of this scum."

For weeks, the press never showed or mentioned the woman, as if "scum" was Sarkozy's own choice of word. The episode provoked a political uproar-and Sarkozy was accused of insulting youth, encouraging racism and xenophobia, and borrowing Le Pen's language and ideas. Far from apologizing, Sarkozy accused his critics of fueling political extremism.

The Left went so far as to charge Sarkozy with responsibility for the countrywide riots that followed weeks later. ButTémoignage denounces the Left's "social" interpretation of these events, which insists that the rioters are victims of the police, racism, and society in general. The Left wanted Sarkozy and the police to leave the rioters alone, and for the state to increase public spending. It never crossed these critics' minds that the situation in the banlieues continues to deteriorate in spite of massive public spending over the years; or that the rioters burn the very schools, libraries, and sport facilities that the Left claims are too few.

Sarkozy can hardly be blamed for believing that massive immigration undermines integration. He has encouraged a policy tilted towards highly qualified and economically needed immigrants, and has sought to restrict family regroupings—the source of almost all legal immigration since the rise of unemployment in the mid-1970s. Although such policies have long been enforced elsewhere, in France the Left argues that family regrouping is a basic human right, and that preference for qualified workers is discriminatory and economically predatory.

Although he takes a conservative approach to immigration reform, Sarkozy takes a quasi-liberal approach to integration. Indeed, his most controversial proposal is to introduce a form of affirmative action. He is well aware of the challenge this would pose to French republican tradition-and of the objections the public would raise to importing American ideas and social policies. In fact, many Americans would find it odd that a policy that is being phased out in the U.S. would be embraced in France. But Sarkozy believes that America has been more successful than France in providing racial and ethnic minorities with economic opportunity. He insists that he opposes ethnic quotas but wants to find ways of helping the weakest in society.

One might disagree with Sarkozy on this; but he is no multiculturalist. He attacks the immigrants' lobbies and their far-left allies who seek to cast a shadow on French history. (These groups recently forced the cancellation of the 200th anniversary celebration of Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, alleging that Napoleon had reestablished slavery.) The son of first- and second-generation immigrants, including a Jewish grandfather, Sarkozy says without apology: "Those who do not like France do not have to stay."

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The author of Témoignage also urges an end to the Priority Education Zones (ZEP) in heavily immigrant areas. In spite of massive resources, these have become ghettos for immigrants and provide decidedly sub-standard education. Middle-class families-and ironically the teachers in the ZEP themselves-have been pulling their children out. Sarkozy recommends dispersing immigrant children throughout the school system and providing them individual help if needed. He adamantly favors school choice, criticizing the socialists' rule that public schools get 80% of the funding and private ones 20% (their teachers are paid by the state), even though the latter are more popular. For Sarkozy, this is simply punishing what works.

But this bold call for a "rupture" with the French social model has triggered the greatest controversy. France suffers social ills and inequalities despite high taxes, deficits, and a bloated public sector and welfare state. In addition, it has been increasingly unable to create new wealth. The country combines the worst of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian models with none of their benefits. Locked in a "tax and spend" mindset, the socialists still believe that the bigger and more interventionist the state, the more just the society, and vice versa. Sarkozy comments acidly: "the specialty of the French socialists has been to share wealth that does not exist."

He recommends something more like the American model, and insists on rehabilitating the work ethic. He would not rescind France's 35-hour workweek, but he would give workers the option to earn more by working more. He has promised higher pay and faster careers in the civil service, in exchange for replacing only half the civil servants who retire. "How can anyone have the foolish idea," he writes, "that more jobs and wealth would result from working less?"

Sarkozy embraces change in France's political institutions and foreign policy as well. He favors a presidential constitutional system in which the parliament would acquire stronger oversight powers to hold the more powerful presidency accountable. He prefers compromises between the executive and the legislature rather than party government. In foreign policy, he might become the Gaullist who will put an end to the Gaullist legacy. He advocates a rapprochement with the United States and Israel, a united Europe that is not a counterweight to American power, and a European leadership that transcends the Franco-German alliance. He is unambiguously for globalization and for encouraging democratization throughout the world: "I do not believe in cultural relativism; human rights, freedom, and democracy are universal values to which all human beings aspire."

With such views on France's social model, the integration of immigrants, foreign policy, and political institutions, no wonder he is called "Sarkozy l'Américain" by his supporters and enemies alike (he takes it as a compliment!). By publicly addressing his temporary break-up with his wife last year and claiming there cannot be any separation between his public and private lives, he does indeed seem to be more American than French.

Sarkozy thinks of himself as more reform-minded than Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand, and Chirac. In fact, he has much in common with de Gaulle: he favors a rupture with a failed past, social and political renewal, strong presidential leadership, and a strategy of movement. Unlike de Gaulle, however, he understands and espouses social change. He yearns, like Reagan, for conservative principles to inform an open economy and a vibrant society. Like de Gaulle, Reagan, and Thatcher, he refuses to acquiesce in his country's decline. But first, of course, Sarkozy has to win.