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.
No Credible Opposition
The institutional reform recently adopted in France can only amplify this concern. The French constitution, originally drawn up to give the parliament more rights, has done just as much to strengthen the president's overwhelming role and trim the powers of the government. That government, elected by the people and independently of the president, now acts as a private cabinet at the Elysée Palace, a place almost as brimming with power as the Versailles of France's former kings. Sarkozy can attend a meeting of the president and prime minister alone, now that he has virtually taken on both functions. And he has practically reduced the members of the cabinet to the roles of department managers.
In this intoxication of power, Sarkozy feels responsible for everything, giving speeches about Alzheimer's disease and psychiatry, automobile manufacturing, residential construction and urban development, presenting plans to promote sustainable growth and combat homelessness, unveiling his visions on Africa's future and Quebec's prospects, and airing his ideas on wind energy, Tibet and rugby. And when he has nothing better to do, he applies for French cuisine to be awarded UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. His speeches and projects are rarely earth-shattering. An eternal campaigner, he is constantly searching for the next sudden crisis. As a result, the French political system lacks, in these uncertain times, an important calming influence, a reliable frame of reference, a neutral authority.
Now if Sarkozy were at least the man of action he purports to be, the master of the common good, one could easily downplay such ideas. But the precarious situation within the system is exacerbated by the fact that the president, upon taking office, appears to have forgotten everything he once promised to the weaker elements of society, while strictly keeping all the promises he made to society's strongest members. Nowadays no one in France doubts that Sarkozy has abandoned the principle of equal treatment of all citizens. Instead of acting as the "president of all Frenchmen," he is more like the head of a clan who has finally worked his way up to the big leagues.
A major operation currently underway offers an instructive insight into the Sarkozy method. Under a reform to take effect in January, stations within the state-owned television network will no longer be permitted to air advertising after 8 p.m. Sarkozy is selling the reform as a quality improvement, viewers are pleased and everything seems to make sense. There is only one problem: Reduced advertising revenues could jeopardize the funding for the state-owned stations, which have a tendency to air programming critical of the government. The change also raises fears that stations forced to rein in spending will cut back on serious journalistic programming first. These fears, too, are more than justified, because Sarkozy has made sure that his new law is structured to ensure that the president appoints the future directors of public broadcasting. Clearly, the intended side effect is that private broadcasters, many of them owned or recently acquired by none other than Sarkozy's immensely wealthy friends, can look forward to significant increases in revenue beginning in January.
The French People Always Come to Life
This, of course, should be the hour of the opposition. But -- and this too poses a great threat to French democracy -- that opposition has faded from the scene. The Socialist Party, the only group that would have been capable of coming up with a true alternative for the next presidential election in 2012, has maneuvered itself to the brink of self-liquidation in the last few weeks. Incapable of cleaning up its own internal strife, and terrorized by its old and new luminaries' claims on power, the Socialist Party has ceased to be an option for the time being. The remaining figures making noises in the political sphere are either too bland, like François Bayrou and his "Democratic Movement," or too unrealistic, like the far left-wing politician Olivier Besancenot, who recommends the abolition of globalization as a cure-all against the current crisis. If this is the competition, Sarkozy has little to fear.
Nevertheless, he and his team have no reason to gloat. In conflict situations like the current one, when the political machinery gets in the way of things, the French people have always come to life. It was only three years ago when barricades were burning around Paris and the government declared a state of emergency in the suburbs to quell the unrest. Since then, not a single problem that led to those riots has been addressed in an even remotely serious way. Sarkozy, who had promised a "Marshall Plan" for the suburbs, or banlieus, has lost interest in that effort. Instead of investing money and enlisting economists, urban planners, architects and teachers to address the problem, new police units are being sent to social hot spots. That tactic, at least, could soon prove to be far-sighted, given the palpable signs of growing unrest.
The forces of disintegration are tearing away at France more sharply than elsewhere, because, even though its society is a diverse mix of ethnicities, religions and refreshingly progressive citizens, the glue that holds it all together is crumbling. Although this process did not begin under Sarkozy, the president has also done nothing to curb it, bring calm to the situation, or perhaps even find new common ground. On the contrary, he only undermines the cohesion of the nation with his policy of "division instead of reconciliation." And that policy, in its current form, provides a lesson on how democracy and the constitutional state cannot be taken for granted, but instead must be secured, carved out and developed, day in and day out, and filled with meaning, intent and virtue. Germany has learned this lesson more bitterly than most other countries. France, so often on the sunny side of history, must do its damnedest not to forget it.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan