In August, 1914 at the high tide of the German advance on Paris in the First World War, the taxicabs of that city raced to the front carrying troops who halted the Kaiser’s forces. A German strategic error may really have saved the French capital, but to a nation that revels in stories of (not so recent) military glory, those early cabbies are remembered as heroes of the First Battle of the Marne.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that a prominent early setback suffered by the still new French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, was in another battle involving taxicabs. Earlier this year, Sarkozy made plans to loosen the market by increasing the number of cabs. But les chauffeur des taxi fought back; hundreds simply drove to La Place de la Republique and stopped: gridlock. Presidential surrender followed.
With a tough reputation developed as a minister in Jacques Chirac’s government and a strong mandate for change, Sarkozy was expected to move from victory to victory and wrench France into the modern, globalized world. Instead, his Administration has been at best a mixed bag: a few victories with the kind of feeble reform attempted by his predecessors but also defeats administered by the likes of the faintly comical cabbies.
Following his election, Sarkozy announced that “the French have chosen to break with the ideas, habits and behavior of the past” and that he would “restore the value of work, authority, merit and respect for the nation.”
But so far he hasn’t, and when this President’s story is told, it may well be in the nature of a Shakespearean tragedy; or, a tragi-comedy of Sarkozy’s almost farcical love for a woman that has cut his polls numbers and compromised a perception of seriousness and strength early in his Administration.
The cabbies’ opponent this time was not as fierce as the Kaiser’s legions, but the new President is still a man of force in the mold of such leaders as Charles DeGaulle.
The French Fifth Republic was tailored by DeGaulle, for DeGaulle, and suits a tough guy well: a weak Assembly and Prime Minister and a very strong President who is in effect both head of government and head of state.
It is just this kind of centralization, however, that has resulted in the brittleness and inflexibility of France’s government and economy that Sarkozy vowed to change. France remains a slave to dirigisme, to overweening state economic involvement that worked in the era of mass industry and mass society but in the age of globalization tends to limit growth and opportunity — and has left France with entrenched interests, high unemployment and sluggish growth.
But despite campaign promises to overhaul of the way France does business, Sarkozy has only nibbled around the edges. He has engineered a few tax cuts but has failed to pare the bloated French budget. Hints that he would increase cooperation with NATO and assist the allies in Afghanistan have not availed. Efforts to end a restricted 35 hour work week have been half hearted at best. And he has disappointed onlookers by a failure to take on unions and devolve state enterprise in the way that Margaret Thatcher found crucial to reforming the British economy.
Even in the best of times it would be difficult to change France, with a featherbedding employment culture of 100-years standing; a mandated equality that is enshrined in the nation’s motto; and in her foreign policy, an anti-Americanism molded by fantasy and the moral vanity of leftist intellectuals.
But these have not been the best of times for a man whose very public romance with former model Carla Bruni revealed a President de la Republique who was not only mortal but even silly and trivial.
Bruni with her gauche pop crooning and history of bedding rock stars; and Sarko, with his outré Ray Bans and millionaire friends.
This tough, admired man with the reputation for getting things done may have thrown it all away in a few months as his reputation for gravity and effectiveness — crucial to a DeGaulle or Churchill or Reagan — was fatally compromised.
As time passed, the whispering began: the President was giddy with love; nothing was getting done.
In political battles psychology ultimately governs: who is tougher; who can hold out longer; who has the public’s support. A sense of Presidential weakness has undoubtedly played a role in Sarkozy’s failures, and capitulation has only served to weaken him still further in the eyes of his adversaries and of the French public that will have to believe and stand firm if France is to be transformed.
Sarko dallied for four or five months and has only recently been making an effort to appear more serious and return to the hard work of governance with what advisors hope is a keener eye than Romeo’s love sick gaze.
And how do we know? He and his handlers have told us so, which is precisely how to appear unserious. A reputation is gained slowly, steadily and unselfconsciously over many years through character and hard work, but also luck and inadvertence; and, as always, more easily lost than gained.
Sarkozy undoubtedly believes that wrenching reform is crucial to France, but his words are viewed against a backdrop of teenage mooning that make his program difficult for the French to treat seriously; indeed, they may only laugh. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: “Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart. The effect doth operate another way.”
Le President Sarkozy has another four years in power in an office that is intrinsically powerful. He has time to recover, and the personal resources he displayed as a cabinet minister suggest that he can — for his own people and for the allies and friends of the French Republic and Citizen Sarkozy.