SPIEGEL Interview with French Historian Max Gallo 'Sarkozy's Victory Is that of Reality over Utopia'

Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated as France's new president on Wednesday. SPIEGEL spoke with French intellectual Max Gallo about why France wants Sarkozy, what his election means for la Grande Nation, and how Sarkozy is like Napoleon.

Historian Max Gallo, 75, has written numerous books about the major issues facing France and some of the country's most important figures. From 1983 to 1984, he was government spokesman for President Francois Mitterrand. In this election, he supported Nicolas Sarkozy.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Gallo, does the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of France signal a new era in the country's political history?

Gallo: Aside from the normal generational shift, it is certainly a true turning point in the political cycle. The ideology of the left, which has influenced, if not dominated, public and intellectual life in France since World War II, is in a deep crisis. Marxism ended long ago, and yet the French socialists haven't discovered any new answers. Many leaders of the left still view social democratic reform as betrayal. This stands in contrast to a candidate who, for the first time, has clearly, decisively and forcefully declared, as part of his platform: "I am a man of the right."

SPIEGEL: Was that why you, as a former leftist, supported him?

Gallo: I chose Sarkozy before the election -- in the interest of France. Why? Because he was simply the better candidate. Perhaps I make judgments like an old school teacher, but I would give Sarkozy a B and Royal a D. If anyone can bring about change, he is the one.

SPIEGEL: Sarkozy rescued the right from its complexes and from its bad social conscience?

Gallo: The head of the UMP aggressively took that position. Given his declared belief in the values of the right, the fact that he was voted into office by an unexpectedly clear majority of more than 53 percent of voters is evidence of an importance shift in the political climate. Sarkozy deliberately sought out the confrontation with the left's uniform way of thinking. He intentionally pushed for the break that Jacques Chirac still shied away from.

SPIEGEL: What exactly does that mean?

Gallo: Sarkozy's victory is not the result of a clash between two equally powerful forces. It is a victory over a ghost, a cadaver that still moves, but no longer has any intellectual strength. Ségolène Royal sensed this, which is why she clearly distanced herself from her own party during the campaign. The victory of the right is a victory of reality over utopia. The left was unable to see the real problems for what they are. Take immigration, for example: Talking about its consequences was taboo, because it's considered an issue of the right.

SPIEGEL: In contrast, Sarkozy has announced plans to establish a ministry for immigration and national identity. How do you define France's national identity?

Gallo: It is not a closed, rigid concept, and it is certainly not nationalist. The indispensable basic principles include the jus solis, that is, the right of any child born in France to become a French citizen, the separation of church and state, and centralism. Add to that the republican school system and the direct relationship between the citizen and the state, without intermediaries, as well as equality and the role of women. Finally, the national canon includes the importance of the French language and the significance of universal values.

SPIEGEL: In other words, liberty, equality and brotherhood?

Gallo: If we contradict these fundamental principles, we run the risk of damaging the nation at its core. If that happens we could face collapse, and I believe people sensed this in the election.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the somewhat mythical identity that is being conjured up here -- the French soul -- is more important that all basic economic issues: unemployment, decline in purchasing power, the housing shortage?

Gallo: Not more important. The truth is that concerns over identity extend to other problems, including economic ones. This is why Sarkozy speaks of democratic patriotism, the importance of industrial production for France, and protecting our own companies against the trend of emigration, and unfair competition. Ségolène Royal also didn't hesitate to wave the French flag.

SPIEGEL: Isn't the nation-state a dying breed, crushed between affiliation with a region or community and supranational structures like the European Union?

Gallo: The nation is not dead. This theory has been historically incorrect since the fall of the Berlin Wall. German reunification represents a democratic and national revolution. We have experienced a renaissance of nations everywhere in Eastern and Central Europe since then. Those who claim France as a nation-state is obsolete are wrong.

SPIEGEL: How can this belief in the nation be reconciled with Sarkozy's liberal economic approach and his commitment to globalization?

Gallo: You mustn't be deceived. Sarkozy preaches to two sides: deregulation and government intervention. He is no neoliberal ideologue, but a pragmatist who will staunchly defend France's interests, also -- and especially -- against EU agencies in Brussels.

SPIEGEL: And against Berlin?

Gallo: Sarkozy is also aware of the necessity of close German-French cooperation. All it takes is a look at a map of Europe to understand why this is true. But the romanticism and sentimentality in the relationship between Paris and Berlin is likely to vanish. It's the way it is with an old, married couple, although the established habits will remain in place. Sarkozy will become a highly unpleasant negotiator for Ms. Merkel. The new president will very quickly attempt to secure a concession on the European stage.

SPIEGEL: France First -- that was a slogan of right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Doesn't toying with this concept pose a danger to civil rights?


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