French presidential elections do not usually stir much interest in the United States. The cast of characters seems to have varied little over the years: President Jacques Chirac, former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the far-right figurehead Jean-Marie Le Pen. The last presidential election without Chirac as a candidate was back in 1974, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and Harold Wilson at 10 Downing Street. And for the past four decades, French foreign policy, whether toward Europe, the United States, the Middle East, or Africa has remained remarkably constant under presidents of the left or the right. Most French candidates under the Fifth Republic have been reliably anti-American, either of the independent-minded Gaullist variety or of a left-wing anticapitalist strain.

This time things are different. Neither Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading right-wing candidate for April's presidential contest, nor his main contender, the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal, has ever stood for the presidency before. Both are in their early 50s, of a different generation from Chirac's and at ease with the Internet revolution. They promise to modernize France and equip it for the twenty-first century. But Royal still embraces the Socialist Party's traditional anti-Americanism, calling, for example, for a strong Europe in order to counter "the American hyperpower," as Hubert Védrine, the former Socialist foreign minister, once put it. Sarkozy, on the other hand, sounds like nobody else before him.


Testimony, the first of Sarkozy's books to be published in English, is partly an unapologetic charm offensive aimed at a U.S. audience. Most of it is a translation of Témoignage, a best-selling proto-manifesto published in French last summer; the rest includes chapters from Libre, a chronicle of Sarkozy's political awakening from his student days onward, as well as some fresh material. Two elements in the book startle. The first is Sarkozy's stated admiration for the United States, which is unorthodox for a French politician. The second is his equally unusual candor about France's failings.

Sarkozy's respect for the United States was already explicit in Témoignage; in Testimony, it is forthright from page one: "I have no intention of apologizing for feeling an affinity with the greatest democracy in the world." On a trip last September to New York, where he commemorated 9/11, and Washington, D.C., where he joined President George W. Bush, he stunned French commentators -- and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin -- by criticizing "French arrogance" over the war in Iraq. Sarkozy called for a "new era in transatlantic relations" and declared that it was "unthinkable for Europe to forge its identity in opposition to the United States." French ambivalence toward, or even suspicion of, the United States, he asserted, in addressing Americans, "reflects a certain envy of your brilliant success."

In Testimony, Sarkozy further warms to this theme. France and the United States, he argues, cannot afford to be anything but firm friends. They are intimately linked by a shared revolutionary history, based on individual liberty and republicanism. France owes a debt to the United States for its liberation of France from Nazi occupation in 1944. Today, the two countries face common challenges: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of China, India, and Brazil. To these historical and strategic ties, Sarkozy adds a personal affinity: a visceral anticommunism, inherited from his father, who settled in France in 1948 after fleeing communist Hungary. Rebuilding trust between France and the United States, Sarkozy argues, would preclude neither frank exchanges nor disagreements. He readily criticizes the failures of U.S. environmental policy, for example, but does not want such differences to spiral into a damaging diplomatic fallout.

This argument, and most of his views on foreign affairs, puts Sarkozy directly at odds with the Gaullist, independent-minded, Arabist tradition that has so dominated French diplomacy. Sarkozy calls for more support of Israel: "We cannot make our relations with Israel conditional on the ups and downs of our interests in Arab societies." He advocates ending relations with African states that are based on opaque networks and personal links to their leaders and argues for a more transparent, democratic approach from Paris. He refuses to rule out any options in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. He even urges less intransigence in regard to protecting the French language, suggesting that the French should be ready to speak English more often. For a French politician during an election campaign, this is breathtakingly bold.

Yet, Sarkozy is even less sparing in his criticism of French domestic policy. Over the past 25 years, he argues, France has become a stagnant society that has destroyed the value of work and deluded itself into thinking that its welfare system is sustainable. Unemployment, which now stands at 8.6 percent, has not dipped below 8 percent over the past generation. The French have one of the shortest workweeks in the Western world. France's GDP, which was bigger than the United Kingdom's in the 1970s, is now 5 percent smaller. French public debt amounts to a hefty 66 percent of the country's GDP, compared with 42 percent for the United Kingdom. While the rest of Europe has tried to adapt to globalization, France has denied it, hiding behind a damaging credo of antiliberalism. The country, Sarkozy writes, "cannot act like the Gallic village surrounded by Roman camps" because "only in Asterix cartoons does the Gallic village win."

Sarkozy contends, moreover, that France hides the reality of its inequality behind the theory of egalitarianism. This contradiction is exposed by the plight of France's minorities, an estimated five million of whom are Muslims. Many are concentrated in crowded housing projects ringing France's major cities. Sarkozy, who has twice held the job of interior minister, has been unyieldingly condemnatory of those who rioted in 2005 and firm, too, about the obligation of immigrants to respect France's republican values. Yet he also argues that minorities are underrepresented in positions of authority because France's creed precludes preferential treatment. In order to build ladders out of the de facto ghettos, he advocates in this book "a French version of affirmative action," thus standing against French tradition, which refuses to even identify minorities as such. As the son of a Hungarian immigrant and grandson of a Thessaloníki Jew, his views on integration carry particular conviction: Sarkozy says that he felt the burden of growing up as an outsider and struggled with "a foreign-sounding name." In office, he caused a stir by announcing that he was appointing a Muslim as préfet, the top state representative in regional departments. To some, this came off as an assault on the country's secular tradition, which enshrines in law the separation of church and state.

In short, Sarkozy argues, France needs to reinvent its social model in order to revive economic growth. His solution? Restore the work ethic by "proving that work pays," tightening up welfare rules, and lowering income taxes; encourage job creation in the private sector by loosening restrictions that curb hiring, such as the mandatory 35-hour workweek; and help control public spending and pay down the country's crippling debt by streamlining the bureaucracy. Sarkozy's economic liberalism has its limits, however: for one thing, he remains an avowed interventionist on industrial policy. And given the perilous state of French public finances, he may be overly optimistic about the prospects for cutting taxes. Yet, on balance, his ideas are both more daring and more coherent than those of any other mainstream French presidential candidate for years. "I'm not trying to be provocative for the sake of it," he writes, "but trying to wake people up in a way that's urgently needed."


Much of Sarkozy's analysis of contemporary France will fall on sympathetic ears in the United States and the United Kingdom. But what will French voters make of it? Are they ready for difficult reform and a president who promises to trim their privileges and shake them out of their comfort zone, let alone one who seeks a closer relationship with the United States? Sarkozy seems to think that his alternative line, a push for "a clean break" with the past that would involve some sacrifice, may be electorally credible because it distinguishes him from Chirac and his stagnant 12-year presidency.

The two men belong to the same political family, but their relationship has been complicated and tempestuous. As Sarkozy recalls in Testimony, it was Chirac who, as a Gaullist prime minister in 1975, called on Sarkozy, then a 20-year-old activist, to deliver his first party convention speech. Chirac became Sarkozy's political mentor, part father figure, part model. Like the young Chirac, Sarkozy was hyperactive and precocious: by the age of 28, he had been elected mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a smart Paris suburb. And like Chirac throughout his career, Sarkozy has known when to seize opportunities to build up a local power base or secure control of his political party.

Confidence between the two men collapsed in 1995, after Sarkozy backed a Chirac rival in the presidential election. More recently, their relationship has been characterized by distrust rather than dislike. Chirac has tried to keep his one-time protégé at arm's length, but he has not managed to stop Sarkozy from taking control of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the descendant of a party Chirac founded. And Sarkozy is now campaigning by denouncing the record of the president in whose government he has served since 2002. This is partly a tactical move: for electoral purposes, Sarkozy needs to be seen as different, and embracing a raft of policies that contradict those of the Chirac era enables him to do so. But Sarkozy's distancing is also partly about genuine differences of opinion. "We're not irritated by the same things. He gets irritated with liberalism, the Americans, certain CEOs, and people who disagree with him about Europe," Sarkozy writes of Chirac. "I get irritated by the lack of steadfastness, hesitation, un-kept promises, the refusal to see France as it is, and conventional wisdom." Above all, Sarkozy says, "he thinks France is fragile and resistant to change. I think France is impatient, exasperated by delays, and eager for profound change."

Sarkozy repeats this bold but questionable assertion throughout the book. "The French are not afraid of change. They're waiting for it," he claims. "It's politics that has gradually become sclerotic, predictable, and rigid over the past few years, not society." The French elite, he argues, has lost touch with ordinary people and underestimates their readiness to adapt. Sarkozy believes that it is the political class in Paris that is anti-American, not ordinary French people, who embrace American popular culture and American values. If French politicians tempered their own impulses and their rhetoric, Sarkozy's line goes, the French public would readily support less confrontational ties with its old transatlantic ally.

Sarkozy is right that a gap has opened up between the elite and the electorate in France. Disillusion with the establishment has been a marked feature of recent elections, and it helps explain the rise of fringe candidates, such as the far-right Le Pen, who outdid the Socialist candidate, Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election and has polled well during this year's campaign. It also accounts for the fact that in every legislative election since 1981, the French have voted against the incumbent party.

But does this yearning for change necessarily translate into the kind of "clean break" Sarkozy is promising? Even the candidate seems to harbor doubts. Last year, Sarkozy's criticism of French diplomacy over Iraq was greeted with indignation in Paris; he has since felt the need to reaffirm his view that Chirac was right to oppose the war in Iraq. By midcampaign, he had tempered some of the radical discourse that appears in the pages of Testimony and had begun to balance it with promises to protect "the France that suffers" and to moderate the excesses of "financial capitalism." He had ditched some of the more controversial ideas he championed in his book, such as affirmative action, which he has failed even to persuade his party to adopt. And he was calling a lot less often for a "rupture" with the ways of the past.


Sarkozy's backtracking, during such a tight campaign, is partly electoral opportunism. He has been trying to fend off both the threat from Le Pen on the far right and that from François Bayrou, a late-rising star in the polls, in the center. Some of Sarkozy's surprising populist proposals, such as the creation of a ministry of immigration and national identity or his attacks on the "overvalued" euro and the European Central Bank's exchange-rate policy, seem explicitly designed to court the far-right working-class voter, who is fearful of the changes under way in France and keen to find a ready scapegoat for them.

At the same time, Sarkozy has tried to appeal beyond his political base to the center in order to build credibility for a second-round runoff and reduce the space available to Bayrou, the leader of the Union pour la Démocratie Française, a minority party. Bayrou surged in the polls in March, turning the election into a wide-open three-way race and exposing the limits of Sarkozy's efforts to occupy both the right and the middle ground. Bayrou's modest spending plans and consensual talk about bridging the left-right divide has drawn considerable support. He has become a genuine threat to the leading candidates.

In many ways, Sarkozy has found it harder to confront Bayrou than the Socialist Royal. Despite a lingering view in some quarters that Royal is a Blairite, her program is resolutely left wing and old-fashioned; after all, she cut her political teeth working as an adviser to President François Mitterrand in 1982-88. She now promises to boost the minimum wage, renationalize and merge the energy utilities Electricité de France and Gaz de France, tighten rules governing the 35-hour workweek in order to "reduce their negative effects on workers," and penalize companies that distribute dividends to shareholders instead of reinvesting profits. She has railed against "the power of money" and "greedy profits." Whereas Sarkozy has cheerfully posed for the cameras with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Royal -- despite being a fellow member of the political left -- has never even met him.

The real question is whether the less daring, more populist stance that Sarkozy has taken during the election campaign genuinely calls into question his commitment to the values and policies expressed in the pages of Testimony. The concern is legitimate. Even in ministerial office, Sarkozy has not always turned out to be either the economic liberal or the political radical some of his supporters had hoped. His methods can be heavy-handed: as finance minister (in 2004), he once threatened to "out" supermarket bosses in the media if they failed to bring down retail prices. And nobody has forgotten that Chirac before him, a man who has presided over more than a decade of stagnation, was once also considered an energetic reformer.

On balance, however, and notably concerning some of France's most pressing problems, Sarkozy could turn out to be as bold as he has billed himself to be in his book -- or at least ready to give reform a real chance. Sarkozy understands, in particular, the need to deregulate the French labor market in order to create jobs and get the French to work more, as well as the need to rein in the bureaucracy and the welfare state. And he could well push through rapid and far-reaching reform.

In this sense, a President Sarkozy might even live up to the audacious politician who appears in Testimony: a risk-taker and pragmatist, pugnacious and nonideological. There is almost nothing about this book that resembles the work of a traditional French politician. There is scarcely a reference to French grandeur or to iconic moments in French history. Charles de Gaulle gets only a passing mention. There is no surging prose, no extravagant syntax, just active verbs and a conversational tone. The Sarkozy of Testimony is a blunter, tougher-talking politician than the man on the campaign trail. That one has been savvy with his voters. But the one who inhabits the pages of this compelling book may be closer to the real Nicolas Sarkozy.

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