Friend or Faux?

By Olivier Roy, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, is the author of “Globalized Islam” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15/05/07):

NICOLAS SARKOZY, who will take over the presidency from Jacques Chirac tomorrow, has often been dubbed by the left in France as “Sarkozy the American.” His victory has also been greeted in American conservative circles as an unprecedented break with the “French disease” (welfare state, 35-hour workweek, national arrogance, anti-Americanism, etc.).

Certainly, Mr. Sarkozy is pro-American and anti-bureaucracy and has no problem with hobnobbing with the rich, as shown by his luxury (and very short) vacation on a billionaire’s yacht in Malta after his election. He also repeatedly claims that he will make a clear break with Mr. Chirac’s policies.

But feelings and gestures don’t make a policy. And there is no neoconservative or Thatcherist revolution in sight for France.

Mr. Sarkozy may present himself as what the French call a “libéral” on the economy — that is, someone who favors a free market — but when he was the finance minister, the taxes and social charges paid by business did not decline, he blocked foreign takeover bids and he bailed out an ailing French company, Alstom, with taxpayer money. As president, he will try to give more flexibility to business, but without dismantling the minimum wage; to give more autonomy to the universities, but without privatizing them; to redefine the welfare state, but without eliminating it; to decrease the power of the unions, but without snubbing them.

This does not amount to a revolution but to a continuation of the French economy’s bumpy path since 1993, when Édouard Balladur became prime minister and tried to push a libéral economic agenda. The general deregulation that American conservatives envision isn’t in the works. So far, European Union rules have been much more important in fostering a liberalization of the French economy than any French politician.

This is not a matter of hypocrisy, but of political will. Mr. Sarkozy may be a libéral on the economy, but he is not a political libéral; he may want to downsize the bureaucracy, but he favors a strong state. One of his speechwriters, Henri Guaino, is a Gaullist of the left who advocates nationalism and state interventionism. Surely the declarations of Mr. Sarkozy against the European Central Bank’s tight monetary policy and in defense of a weaker euro are more interventionist than laissez-faire.

There are also many domestic constraints. True libérals are a rarity in France, both on the left and the right. To be elected, Mr. Sarkozy had to reach out to very different layers of French society, and it overwhelmingly favors a welfare state. There is a real danger of a coalition of the discontented, as happened in 1995 when striking unions and students paralyzed the country for weeks.

Mr. Sarkozy has also been credited for injecting some multiculturalism into a French society that prefers assimilation. But the president-elect has toned down his support for a greater role for religion in the public sphere: this is a bow to reality, since political (if not ideological) secularism pervades most of the left and right.

The same applies for foreign policy. Although Mr. Sarkozy is not known as personally self-effacing, France will certainly cease to teach lessons to the world in the Gaullist tradition. That is more a matter of age than of ideology. The Gaullist attitude still runs strong among the older members of the political elite, but it is less and less common among the members of younger generations like the 52-year-old president-elect.

Still, although Mr. Sarkozy will certainly adopt a lower profile in foreign policy, that does not mean that he will endorse the American neoconservative strategy. First, that strategy is dead. Second, even when there were enough people on both sides of the issue in France to have a debate about the United States intervention in Iraq, Mr. Sarkozy, while condemning the anti-American tone of Mr. Chirac as arrogant, never advocated joining the American coalition. He recently suggested that French troops might leave Afghanistan, hardly a shift to the American side.

He is obviously a staunch friend of Israel and lacks experience with the Arab world, but his stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beyond the emotions, is the traditional French position (the two-state solution through bilateral negotiations). On Iran he criticized the recent softening of the French stance, but that merely means that he will return the government to advocating economic sanctions. By categorically opposing the entry of Turkey in Europe, he breaks with the United States policy, but he is in tune with French public opinion.

Although the new cabinet has not yet formally been appointed, the names given out by Mr. Sarkozy’s close circle confirm that it will hardly be a neoconservative government: some former leftists (Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Doctors Without Borders, and former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine) some members of the floating center and some pro-environment conservatives (former Prime Minister Alain Juppé).

The only suggested minister associated with the “moral right,” Christine Boutin, opposes same-sex marriage but is also well known for advocating a “right for housing” for the homeless. These names have produced no uproar on the conservative side: press comments and public opinion seem to endorse such a centrist move.

Americans misunderstand what a “conservative” France could be: it does not mean a drastic shift toward a free market and traditional moral values, but a balance between a welfare (and strong) state and a more flexible labor market. Under “Sarkozy the American,” France will remain very French.