BERLIN, Germany, May 7 — Callista and I are in Europe this week for a conference on innovation in health care. More about our trip to Berlin in a minute, but first the big news in Europe this week isn’t in Germany but in France.
I know this will seem strange to those of us who like to make jokes about the French, but the fact is that there is a great deal to be learned from the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy (a member of the ruling party) in last weekend’s “change” election in France — and Republicans had better learn it.
For those of you who haven’t followed it closely, here is some background on the election.
The Background: An Unpopular Incumbent President and a Desire for Change
Incumbent French President Jacques Chirac had been twice elected, has served a total of 12 years in office, and is very unpopular. Coming into this election, people were very tired of the Chirac government and there was a sense that there had to be change.
But the opposition on the left, the Socialist Party, failed completely to capitalize on this desire for change. They nominated a candidate of great achievement, Ségolène Royal, but she proved herself to be the candidate of the status quo, not the candidate of change. She was actually committed to keeping all the bureaucracies that were failing and all the policies that were creating unemployment. She was committed to avoiding the changes necessary for a French future of prosperity, opportunity and safety.
Normally, with the incumbent conservative government so unpopular, the left would have been expected to win the election, probably by a significant margin. But the conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, won decisively because he is an aggressive, different kind of French political leader. He is a member of the Chirac government — the Minister of the Interior. But not only is he a man who is willing to stand up and fight for what he believes in, but Sarkozy is also a man who hasn’t followed the normal French path to success by going to an elite university, becoming part of the ruling elite and fitting in.
Sarkozy: A Different Kind of Frenchman
Instead, Sarkozy is just the opposite. He was born of Hungarian parents who had fled communism in Eastern Europe. That makes him the first president of France who is a first-generation immigrant. It also means his name doesn’t sound very French. And his style certainly isn’t very French. He is a tough, confrontational leader — a man who has been preaching things that don’t sound very much like the French establishment.
In the campaign, Sarkozy argued that the French have to work longer hours and, in order to give them an incentive to do so, that they shouldn’t pay taxes if they work overtime. He called for tax cuts to encourage investment so the private sector can create jobs. And critically, Sarkozy has said that the people must obey the law, that the creation of law and respect for the law is a central part of any civilized society.
Remember, this is a jarring message for a country that routinely accepts the burning of up to 15,000 cars a year by hooligans who, according to the elites, are simply “expressing their desire to disrupt society.” It’s jarring for a country that was very proud a few years back to have the first mandatory 35-hour work week in history. Yet an increasing majority of the French believes that without the kind of changes Sarkozy is calling for, France’s stature will disappear in a wave of lawlessness and economic decay.
A Royal Commitment to the Status Quo and a Candidate of Change
As for the opposition in the French election, much like the American Democratic Party, it is trapped by its commitment to big labor, big bureaucracy, high taxes and social values people don’t believe in. Every time French voters seriously looked at Ségolène Royal and the kind of politics she represents, she lost ground. She simply couldn’t make the case that left-wing Socialist policies would work.
The result was a surprising and powerful upset by Sarkozy — a victory by a center-right reformer, a member of the unpopular ruling party, who came to personify change.
And here’s where American Republicans really need to pay attention: In France, voting for change meant voting for the party in office, but not the personality in office. And voting to keep the old order meant voting for the opposition, not for the incumbent party.
If Republicans hope to win the presidency next year, they better find a candidate who is prepared to stand for very bold, very dramatic and very systematic change in Washington. Not only that, but they had better make the case that the left-wing Democrat likely to be nominated represents the failed status quo: the bureaucracies that are failing, the social policies that are failing, the high tax policies that are failing, and the weakness around the world that has failed so badly in protecting America.
Only if we have that kind of campaign do we have a reasonable chance to expect the American people will vote for effective change for a better, safer and more prosperous future — and that they will see that effective change as being Republican.
A Franco-American Alliance for ‘Green Conservatism’?
In the meantime, Sarkozy has pledged to repair relations between France and America, and we should take him seriously in his pledge. In particular, he has called on America to lead the world in addressing climate change.
This gives President Bush a unique opportunity to change the perception of his attitude toward both Europe and the environment. The President should take up Sarkozy’s call for U.S. leadership on global warming by proposing a bold new initiative on market-based, entrepreneurial incentives to help in the environment. As I outline in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using new technology to dramatically increase energy independence and reduce reliance on carbon isn’t giving in to the left — it’s resisting the big government solutions that the left routinely imposes under the guise of protecting the environment and instead finding a more effective way forward to protect and renew the natural world.
In the news here at home, I wanted to take a moment to congratulate former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his call in a speech [video, audio] at the Citadel last week for the creation of a special force to specifically handle post-combat operations in places like Iraq.
In 1999, I served on the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century (also known as the Hart-Rudman Commission) to examine our national security challenges as far out as 2025. One of the reforms we called for was the creation of a post-combat force.
In addition, I have long argued for the creation of a much larger military. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are all on record calling for a bigger army. The White House should answer their calls now. We can’t wait until 2009.
Environmental Polar Opposites
While we are here in Berlin, Callista and I plan to stop by the zoo to see my namesake, Knut the polar bear. He’s getting bigger these days, but you probably remember him from a few months ago when he was a cub recently abandoned by his mother. Some animal rights activists had declared that he should be put to death rather than be raised by humans. I’m going to see Knut, not only because of my great love of zoos and the natural world, but because I think he is a symbol of a growing divide on man’s relationship with the environment. The activists who wanted Knut killed represent the radical view that humans are only destroyers of the natural world and that human needs and wants shall always be a distant second to the environment.
My view is that we are stewards of the natural world. We have an obligation to preserve and protect it, not only for future generations of human beings, but for all living things.
So long for now from Berlin. I’ll report again next week on the launch of my new novel, Pearl Harbor, and the national security lessons it contains for America today.
P.S. — On Saturday, my new organization, American Solutions For Winning the Future, held a terrific virtual town hall meeting on American civilization, citizenship and English as the official language of government that attracted thousands of participants of all different political parties in Iowa. You can listen to it now
P.P.S. — Are you or someone you know going to be in Hawaii on Memorial Day? Join me, Sean Hannity and Ollie North for a “Freedom Rally” at the Hawaiian Convention Center in Hololulu. For more information, visit newt.org or freedomrally.net.