Sarkozy's Testimony: The Conscience of a French Conservative

When bemoaning the apparent lack of a natural conservative leader in American politics, conservatives such as Newt Gingrich often cite Nicholas Sarkozy as their role model.
The American interest in the 52-year-old president of France is fascinating in that Sarkozy comes from a country where government at all levels intrudes far more in people’s lives than it does here. Taxes take much more out of the Euro than they do the U.S. dollar. But the man the Parisian press dubs “Speedy Sarko” is working tirelessly to give tax breaks to the French who work overtime, and he is gearing up for a bruising fight with transit unions on whether they should operate trains and buses during public strikes.

Appropriately titled Testimony, this thoughtful book carefully details the author’s vision of smaller government and greater individual freedom, as well as his hopes for the future of his country in the European Union and the world community.

Most intriguing of all, the new man in charge of a country with which the U.S. has had increasing tension in recent years follows the path of Lafayette and DeTocqueville by professing his heartfelt admiration for America.

Written before his internationally-watched campaign for the presidency against Socialist Segolene Royal earlier this year, Sarkozy’s Testimony — now available in English — introduces the reader to one who demonstrates something that American office-seekers rarely emulate: He spells out precisely what he intends to do once elected.

“You don’t respond to a voters’ search for meaning by refusing to take responsibility for your political identity,” writes Sarkozy, scolding politicians who speak in generalities for fear of not offending a constituency. “The right has been constantly guilty of this by constantly apologizing for not being the left. It’s only by building on your political identity that you can widen your base of support.”

As my friend Alexander Pesey and other young French conservatives made clear to me during a recent visit, Sarkozy is different from American conservatives in several respects. He takes the Al Gore line that global warming is a pending world crisis that Western industrial powers must soon address. Occasional churchgoer Sarkozy is typical of politicians throughout Europe in never addressing cultural issues such as abortion and gay unions. And he does back state subsidies to certain private businesses, such as his bailout of the Alstom energy and transportation company.

That said, Sarkozy’s agenda on taxes, freedom and the intrusion of government are classic conservatism in the mold of Hayek, Milton Friedman, Edmund Burke and politicians Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. “[T]axes are too high,” he writes, “Our corporate taxes are too high compared with those of our competitors … Our personal taxes have all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of those used by our European partners.”

What is needed, he insists, is a “clean break … having the courage to remake our fiscal system from scratch … fairer, more effective, and less of a deterrent to work, risk and initiative.”

He also calls for ending inheritance taxes for all small and medium-sized estates (that is 90-95% of them).

Sarkozy’s approach to the illegal immigration issue in his country demonstrates his credo of “trying, experimenting, taking the local pulse, reversing course if things aren’t working and moving forward if they are.” As interior minister in ’02, he visited the refugee center in Northern France known as Sangatte. Initiallly conceived with space for 200 people, Sangatte was welcoming 3,000 refugees a day at the time he made his trip there.

“Three thousand pairs of eyes focused on me,” Sarkozy recalled, “Given that all of them had suffered — and paid unscrupulous traffickers dearly — simple humanity made it imperative to keep them.” However, it was also “critical to shut off the suction pump:” Once the refugees were processed, Sarkozy closed Sangatte, demonstrating that the issues of dealing with those in the country and border security could be dealt with separately.

From expanding private options in education to ending government’s debt (“just a question of good sense and respect for future generations”) to his contempt for French Socialists for “flirting with the extreme left, Trotskyites and other globalization activists,” Sarkozy makes his case for what he calls a “rupture” with his country’s statist past. On the personal side, he shares his disgust for the May 1968 leftist demonstrations against his hero Charles DeGaulle, and his love-hate relationship with former mentor Jacques Chirac.

In a sense, Testimony is “The Conscience of a French Conservative,” and something American conservatives would be wise to read as a reminder of who they were and should be.