Opinion 'Omni-President' Sarkozy Fritters Away French Democracy

Instead of living up to his promise to be the president of all Frenchmen, Nicolas Sarkozy is splitting France right down the middle between those who love him and those who loathe him. His policy of "division instead of reconciliation" is now threatening to tear apart the fabric of French democracy.

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The question of when and if Nicolas Sarkozy ever sleeps has been raised once again in recent weeks, with the French president apparently embarking on a campaign to save the world. He has been seen on most television channels and cover pages, with Merkel and Barroso, Brown and Zapatero, Bush and Medvedev. He has sat at round tables, a serious expression on his face, stood wide awake at lecterns, and spoke to the United Nations and the European Parliament, his voice as loud and clear as ever. He has talked about plans, projects and proposals for prevailing over the financial and global economic crisis, and about ideas and packages intended to restart the global system after the crash. Even those who have paid only fleeting attention to Sarkozy's activity must conclude that he is truly a man of action, one of the most dynamic political leaders of our time.

Soon, when France's European Council presidency ends, Sarkozy will have to lower his sights once again. Last Thursday, he returned to domestic policy and, with much ado, unveiled a national bailout plan designed to reassure the people. Economists, though, were hardly convinced. France was already in crisis even before the big crisis arrived. For years, the French political and economic world has been chasing after missed reforms, while the trade deficit and national debt have climbed to dizzying heights. An ominous realization is taking hold that France is poorly prepared for the tough times ahead, and even the cascade of energetic appearances by Sarkozy cannot hide the fact that, as Prime Minister François Fillon soberly concluded more than a year ago, France is practically bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy, variously described as the "tele-president," the "omni-president" and the "hyper-president," has consistently touted a rosy picture completely out of synch with reality since he came into office in May 2007. This has led to an unfortunate division of French society into two hostile camps. If the opinion polls are to be believed, just under half of the French are satisfied with the president, while roughly the other half are convinced that he is a disaster for the country. The latter group has good or at least better arguments on its side. Unlike Germany, a democracy built on consensus, France is headed for confrontation, and Sarkozy himself has allowed that genie to escape from the bottle by declaring a policy of "rupture" as the dominant aim of his actions.

What seemed liberating when couched in the language of campaign promises now seems oppressive. The president's cleanup operation is affecting France's good and bad traditions alike. While constantly citing the loftiest values, the most attractive ideals and the best motives, Sarkozy is playing doctor on the aging body of French democracy. His incisions, though, are now coming dangerously close to vital organs. Suddenly, such fundamental historical achievements like the separation of powers, freedom of the press and the protection of minorities are at stake in France today. The old-fashioned concept of virtue, which the French political philosopher Charles de Montesquieu defined, almost 250 years ago, as the principle behind every republic, is now being called into question. Without virtue, Montesquieu writes, the state can fall prey to despotism.

Unpleasant Ancedotes Abound

To illustrate this point, let us consider four different scenes from today's France. Scene 1: Hervé Eon, a protestor who, during a Sarkozy visit to a rural area, carried a sign around his neck that read "Get lost, you imbecile," was brought to trial and found guilty of "insulting the head of state." Sarkozy, for his part, used the same words to reproach a citizen who had refused to shake his hand: "Get lost, you imbecile." Scene 2: The daily newspaper Le Figaro, owned by Serge Dassault, an arms merchant and friend of Sarkozy, published, on its front page, a retouched teaser photo of Justice Minister Rachida Dati. A €15,600 ($20,000) ring on the minister's hand was airbrushed out. Scene 3: After a demonstration by Corsican nationalists on the property of another friend of Sarkozy's, actor Christian Clavier, the region's police chief was sacked at the behest of Paris. Scene 4: A former managing editor of the leftwing daily Libération was taken away in handcuffs early one morning because of a letter to the editor published two years earlier, addressed as "scum" by police officers and subjected to multiple body searches.

Such unpleasant anecdotes abound in the France of 2008, year two of the Sarkozy administration. The country is now the subject of some news stories that could easily have originated in 1970s South America. After paying a visit to French prisons, EU Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg described conditions there as "unacceptable" and accused Paris of pursuing a justice policy that contradicts "fundamental human rights." In the summer, the organization Human Rights Watch gave a dark account, based on strong evidence, of the brutal approach taken by the French police, and of its even more brutal interrogation methods. Something is happening in France, and that something is utterly disconcerting.

France, the birthplace of the revolution and human rights, went through years of leaden but, in retrospect, comfortable years of inertia. Now, under Sarkozy, a political style has quickly taken root that harms the country's great democratic culture. A brutalization of political discourse is underway, as if Sarkozy and his team had taken pointers from US President George W. Bush. Their creed, like Bush's, is simple: Whoever is not with us must be against us. Sarkozy even has his own version of Bush's axis of evil, except that his is inhabited by trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, students, scientists and immigrants. In the worst of cases, Sarkozy's enemies are given a vigorous taste of the new spirit in courtrooms and police stations.

Anyone who calls this nothing but maliciously exaggerated caricature should listen to what the French have to say. Pierre Haski, co-founder of the news Web site "Rue 89," wrote in a recent editorial that French society is at "a dangerous point" in its history, that Sarkozy is splitting it in two, and that it should prepare itself "for an undoubtedly brutal shock in 2009." Intellectuals, famous and otherwise, are voicing similar views as they make the rounds of the television talk shows, as are those newspapers that have preserved a modicum of independence. There is growing concern that the many, scattered anecdotes about Sarkozy's abuses could coalesce to form an overriding picture of his term in office.

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