At various times in the just-completed campaign for President of France, conservative hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy had been likened to Margaret Thatcher, Frank Rizzo, and Tony Snow.
Like the “Iron Lady” who was prime minister of Great Britain from 1979-90, former Finance Minister Sarkozy has a solid grasp of free market economics, and worships at the altar of lower taxes and less government. Throughout the recent run-off race between Socialist Segolene Royal and Sarkozy, the candidate of the right-of-center Union for a Popular Movement was relentless in his calls for exempting employers from payroll taxes on overtime, freedom to work extra hours, limiting taxes on income and wealth to 50% of income, lower taxes for small companies with shareholder employees and tax deductible private investment in start-ups.
Like Philadelphia’s late “tough cop” mayor, Sarkozy was the high priest of law and order during two stints as France’s interior minister, overseeing the police and security forces. He outraged the left-wing media in his country last year by branding rioting students and immigrants as “scum” and unleashing truncheon-wielding police on the most devastating demonstration France has seen since May, 1968. Indeed, Sarkozy blames what he considers the “moral crisis” of today — violent crime, rebellious youth, corruption in business and government, and unrestrained immigration — on “the heirs of May 1968, the student protests that shook the capital of France nearly four decades ago.
And like popular White House press secretary Snow, Sarkozy is telegenic, a master sculptor of language, and can be quite charming even as he articulates a controversial position forcefully. Where Royal and other political enemies tried to paint him as the heir to virulently anti-immigrant French politician Jean Marie LePen (who placed a dismal fourth in the initial balloting for President last month) for his calls for an Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Immigration, Sarkozy patiently explained that in order for immigrants to be part of France, they need to be educated in France, speak French, and understand Republican traditions. Following his lone televised debate with nemesis Royal three days before the May 6th presidential election, Sarkozy jumped to his biggest-ever lead in the polls. As Reuters reported: “Royal came out fighting from the start, but she failed to dent Sarkozy’s aura of competence and appeared bad tempered.”
Thatcher? Rizzo? Snow? One might as well toss in Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and even Pat Buchanan (the Frenchman drew an admiring column from Buchanan when he called for protection of national trade and industrial interests to prevent acquisition of French companies by foreign businessmen) while one is characterizing the successor to sixth man to be elected President of the Fifth Republic of France.
To all the comparisons to pundits and pols, good-natured, 52-year-old Nicholas Sarkozy would probably be flattered, but then shake his head with a chuckle. At a time when many older conservatives say it is time for another Ronald Reagan — and just as many younger conservatives say they can’t identify with that any more than a young Democrat in 1980 could understand calls for another Jack Kennedy — the newest conservative star in the world is precisely what the conservative movement needs: a very secure man of his times, one who emulates and imitates no one, who understands the issues of the day and offers fresh solutions and a solid agenda, steeped in philosophy. Indeed, as a youth leader of his party thirty years ago, he made a powerful speech proclaiming “to be a Gaullist is to be revolutionary.”
Sarkozy is sui generis (loosely translated, one of a kind). The son of a Hungarian immigrant (who abandoned the family when Nicholas was a young boy), Sarkozy is the first first-generation Frenchman to serve as president of his country. Noting the Frenchman’s love for the American political system as one less eliltist than that of his own country, Sarkozy biographer Nicolas Domeanch told the Washington Times, “When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California , [Sarkozy] got a real kick out of it. Sarkozy is also a self-styled cinephile (movie lover), who was once sought out by actor Tom Cruise during a visit to Paris two years ago; their political differences aside, the two reportedly got along famously, with Sarkozy telling reporters: “Tom Cruise is a great actor” and “we had many things to talk about.”
While he was actively pursuing a political career, Sarkozy’s second wife once left him to live with another man, but then came back to him. Elected mayor of bucolic Neuilly in suburban Paris in 1983 at the age of 28, Sarkozy became a hero a decade later when, during a televised hostage drama at a nursery school, he walked into the school and negotiated the release of the children with a hostage-taker known as The Human Bomb. A protégé of Chirac, who moved him up through the ranks of the party and the Cabinet, Sarkozy broke with his mentor to support the more conservative Edouard Balladur in the 1995 election for president eventually won by Chirac himself. Blasting his former friend for “treachery,” Chirac nonetheless did bring him into his government, although the two have never been close in the last dozen years.
At a time when French relations with Washington are at a modern low (George W. Bush has 6% approval rating among Frenchmen in one poll) and vice versa, Sarkozy is someone with warmth toward America and its culture. This is in striking contrast to Royal, who told rallies she “would not genuflect before George W. Bush” and vowed not to shake the American President’s hands without bringing up the differences between their respective nations.
Perhaps most significantly, as his country faces an uncertain future regarding the size and scope of government, its role in the European Union, and its relationship with Washington, its new president recognizes that the challenges he faces are unique and that he is a unique figure in its history, the inevitable comparisons to Thatcher and Company notwithstanding. He said as much himself two years ago, and his words might well be an admonition to conservatives in other countries: “For sure, I am not General DeGaulle and France today is not what it was in 1945 and 1958. Nevertheless, this crisis in the suburbs has revealed in a cruel way, the reality that we have been observing for several years in many areas: our country needs radical transformation.”
How he approaches this and the degree of his success makes Nicholas Sarkozy a politician worth watching in the months ahead.