Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem

Patrice de Beer
12 November 2008

France's president is a man who relishes crises. As he hops from one to another, from the Russian invasion of Georgia to the financial hurricane, Nicolas Sarkozy thrives in the self-image of "crisis-manager-in-chief" - and strives to make others perceive the halo. It helps that he can - at least until the last day of 2008 - include the "presidency" of the European Union in his portfolio.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)

The characteristic image of "Sarko" is of a figure popping up, rushing onto or off his plane, seizing an initiative or propelling himself to the frontline and frontpage. There is hardly a European or global issue where the president does not want to interpolate himself (and if it is just too intractable or time-consuming - as in the Democratic Republic of Congo - he can deploy his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner). And indeed, the bigger the issue the larger the claim. It is no wonder that Sarko now presents himself as a great friend of president-elect Barack Obama, drawing on the capital he gained when he hosted the United States's next leader at the Elysée palace during the election campaign (while disdaining to find time to welcome Obama's Republican rival, John McCain).

To achieve this pre-eminence and sustain the profile that accompanies it, he is shameless in borrowing ideas from other leaders (such as Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown on financial reforms), overshadowing once-friendly rivals (such as Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel), or pushing himself into the limelight (such as claiming credit for convincing Moscow to sign a ceasefire with Georgia, and Washington over the convening of the G20 summit on 15 November 2008).

Sarkozy's G20-summit strategy extends to seeking recognition for coaxing Asian leaders (including China's president, Hu Jintao) to attend. But this pattern of frenetic activity is almost designed to provoke irritation, even among France's closest allies. The apparent tension with Angela Merkel over an invitation to the armistice commemoration on 11 November is but a minor example. More serious has been the discontent Sarkozy's grandstanding has occasioned across the European Union.

For the other side of Sarkozy's aspiration to be the "president of Europe" - a title he loves - is the accusation that he is plotting a kind of coup d'etat against European institutions, by trying to extend his "presidency" beyond the end-date of 31 December 2008 (when the mantle passes to the Czech Republic). The nerves are rattling in Prague, in Stockholm (which succeeds to the presidency in July 2009), in Berlin, and beyond; not least as Sarkozy's invention of a new quasi-political grouping based on eurozone membership (which conveniently excludes the Czechs and Swedes) appears also to sidestep the established Eurogroup chaired by respected Luxembourg premier and finance minister Jean-Claude Juncker).

It is all a striking turnaround for a man who, when elected in May 2007, did not seem very well versed (nor especially interested) in foreign affairs, and who had even mused over the idea of abolishing the Quai d'Orsay (site of the French foreign ministry). Sarko, a former interior minister, made his political name in the domestic arena - campaigning on law-and-order and repelling immigrants. But he has caught up quickly; indeed, history shows (for Sarkozy as with George W Bush) that even if elections are seldom won on international issues, the latter tend to bite at some point in a presidential term.

A domestic test

But if Nicolas Sarkozy knocks repeatedly at the world's door, his restlessness extends too to an impatient desire to find urgent solutions (and often merely populist non-solutions) to the many domestic concerns that have come under his voracious inspection. Among the near-limitless reform agenda, the very institutional map of France itself has been redrawn several times even since May 2007. The national structures of the judiciary, military, universities and health services have been shaken to the core - in part to revamp overlapping and often obsolete networks, but also in part to save money in a country Sarkozy himself has called "broke".

A further renovation has now been added to the list with the setting up of a new commission, headed by Sarkozy's mentor and former prime minister, Édouard Balladur. The task is to simplify France's multilayered administrative machinery ("I don't want a new report, I want solutions" - and within three months, was the president's characteristic demand).

This official aims of this reform are to save costs and improve management. An unofficial political aim is to curtail the influence of the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS) - which, if it looks incapable of taking back power on the national level, still wields control of many regions, départements and major cities.

It will be a hard task to unthread such an intricate system - harder, arguably, than many of Sarkozy's international endeavours. In 1969, Charles de Gaulle was obliged to resign from the presidency after his own regional reform - opposed by almost the entire political establishment - was rejected in a referendum. François Mitterrand was able to make some changes to the system in the early 1980, but since then no government has had the courage to propose radical reform of a clotted system.

There is popular as well as political resistance to any such effort. The French are deeply attached to their (real or imaginary) rural roots, and nostalgia for their ancestral départements or identification with the location of a weekend home is never far from the surface, and easily tapped. Politicians of left and right look with disfavour on any changes which could harm their local influence. The massive parliamentary opposition to the suppression of the départements' number on cars' number-plates (a decision now subject to a qualified reversal) is a clear signal of this very modern malaise.

A difficult reform

Yet if France is so hard to govern, it is not because of her 365 (allegedly) types of cheese, as Charles de Gaulle (allegedly) once said. It is rather because of the inextricable administrative behemoth created during the last four decades by the piling up of seven layers of institutions under the national one: 36,782 communes (from tiny villages to big cities); 2,580 intercommunal groupings; 100 départements (including four overseas, divided into 4,039 cantons, 325 arrondissements and 334 pays, or informal districts); and twenty-six regions.

Most of these have specific administrative and fiscal powers, backed by a huge budget that involves 30% of all civil servants (689,000) managing 75% of public investments. France also has powerful elected bodies at communal, intercommunal, departmental (where each canton is represented by a counsellor) and regional levels; while the membership of the senate is heavily tilted in favour of underpopulated rural areas. At least some fiscal decisions need to be dealt with at all six levels before a decision can be reached.

Some in the leftwing opposition, led by the socialists, may agree in principle on the need to simplify this indigestible, multi-layered cake. But as a whole the left is opposed to any reform which would reduce its local powers and slash its financial resources - at the very time it is looking ahead to the next regional elections in 2010.

But there are also vocal and powerful opponents within Sarkozy's own conservative camp. The chief whip of his Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) in the national assembly, former minister Jean-François Copé, and the newly elected president of the senate, Gérard Larcher, have set up their own commission to do as much as they can to control the debate and block any proposed change.

What makes this reform even more difficult to design - let alone to implement - is the intricacy of France's local-government structures. An entangled system with overlapping responsibilities will be complicated and costly to unravel. The question of who is going to pay the price of reform (in in loss of power as well as monetary terms) is a key one. Will local villages with a few dozen voters be forcibly regrouped with other neighbouring boroughs; will départements be merged with regions, or small regions be amalgamated (Normandy is divided into two regions, for example); will the sacrosanct republican principle of uniformity - which specifies that any structure has to be identical with others in the same category, thus denying the option of local variation - be broken, allowing a la carte regroupings between regions and départements (or cities and départements in the case of Paris, which is both at the same time)?

The last quality 

The French president may in the course of this campaign discover the truth of the renowned phrase of Tip O'Neill: "all politics is local". It is one thing to ride a white horse around the world looking for diplomatic victories, or even to impose economic and social burdens on voters at home. But it is quite another to undermine - or even just to threaten - the political fiefdoms and ambitions of France's politicians. After all, this is a country where the "local" is also the regional and the national: members of the national assembly or senate are also often local councillors, mayors or chairs of regional assemblies. In this sense they have the best of both worlds: a local power-base, and a vote at national level which (especially in troubled times) may be badly needed by president and government to pass legislation.

Nicolas Sarkozy has a very personal and persuasive blend of qualities: ideological conviction and pragmatism, charm and ruthlessness, boundless determination to trample any opposition to his goals and pervasive influence on the media. Yet even for him, it will be a tough and possibly painful challenge to achieve reform in this area.

Sarko has another precious quality (shared perhaps with the United States president-elect he reveres): luck. The burst of renewed popularity (as reflected in current opinion-polls) he has acquired - in part as a by-product of the enduring internecine conflict within the Parti Socialiste - is a case in point. To overcome so much opposition on this issue, active as well as passive, he will need plenty of this too. A failure would certainly dent his image. But Sarkozy is no Charles de Gaulle: if he were to fail he certainly would not resign.

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