Tony Blair has had pretty much of a free hand to act. The job of British prime minister offers the freedom to chalk up personal triumphs, but also to get things horribly wrong. All on one’s own. Now look across the Channel. The personal dominance allotted to the winner of France’s presidential elections far exceeds even that which Gordon Brown is about to inherit.
It’s hard to think of any politician in the western world who can look forward to wielding greater personal power than either Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal, one of whom – this is a safe-ish prediction – will shortly occupy the Élysée Palace. True, Jacques Chirac looks anything but omnipotent as he limps to the end of his mandate. But that is because he has lacked the legitimacy which Sarkozy or Royal will have: he brought his own fate on himself by sacking parliament, then winning re-election by a strange landslide that was no reflection of his popularity because the run-off opponent he faced was the far right’s aged prince of xenophobia, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with whom four in five voters wouldn’t share a baguette.
With a “clean” victory and a supportive parliament likely to be elected in its wake, the new winner will rule alone, as indeed General de Gaulle’s constitution recommends. This isn’t the place to ask why parliament accepts its sorry back seat (which both Sarko and Ségo talk of upgrading). Consider, rather, how the winner will confront the world. For though the president may feel some constraints on his domestic policy, international affairs are a strictly personal business – a “presidential preserve”, as François Mitterrand put it in huntmaster’s language.
On Europe, the conservative Sarkozy is the more enthusiastic about political union. He wants a slimmed-down EU constitution, and to have it ratified by parliament, so as not to give his pesky compatriots another chance to sink it by referendum. And sorry, Turkey, you are not Europe. “Limitless enlargement risks destroying European political union and I shall not accept it.” Royal would put a constitution to another referendum, as long as it guarantees welfare programmes – which Sarkozy cares less about.
Rude young man
There was a revealing moment, during a distant tiff over EU farm policy, when Chirac remembered the superior dignity of his post and called Blair “a very rude young man”. Brown won’t face such savaging. Sarkozy, though a loose canon of repute, is embarrassingly impressed by the UK’s economic record. In this campaign he plays the “English candidate”, referring to Britain’s low unemployment, the way les Anglais handle problems, the free-market liberalism of the Thatcher-Blair-Brown school. Iraq is not part of his passion for all things English, of course, but he regularly responds to questions with: “When I was in London . . .”
Indeed, the nervy, impulsive Sarkozy looks an easier pal for PM Brown than the serene Royal who, despite sharing Brown’s basic Labour beliefs, unselfconsciously names Joan of Arc as her role model. This could be a little troublesome. Her new-found nationalism isn’t all electoral strategy: a switch to singing “La Marseillaise” in place of the customary socialist “Internationale” at campaign meetings, and her appeal to the French to hang out the Tricolour from their homes on national holidays, do suggest a Maid of Orléans streak.
The change at the Élysée will surely have its main – salutary – effect on the greatest rupture seen in transatlantic relations in many decades. The rift and mutual resentment between George Bush’s America and France over Iraq has focused on the diverging world philosophies of the US and continental Europe. But Sarkozy is an Atlanticist, at one with the American way in many things, if not in the matter of the Middle East war. He is probably right when he says he can speak to America as a friend, and tell it the truth when he thinks it is wrong. Unlike Chirac, he has the language to do so. For her part, Royal should generally see eye to eye with a Democratic US president, though the good times forecast for a love-in with Hillary Clinton may be exaggerated. There must be a reason why these two strong-minded women have refrained from meeting each other.
Sarko and Ségo present themselves as new. They want to appear new to the world, as well as to France. How will their newness show itself? I sense that it will be something quite profound in its way – a departure from the French obsession with grandeur.
Grandeur doesn’t go with Sarko’s personality or (I shall be in trouble for this) with Ségo’s womanhood and her insistent self-identification with everyday French motherhood, to which even Joan of Arc takes second place. This could be good news for world diplomacy. Even in Africa, where preceding residents of the Élysée from de Gaulle onwards have run shady private networks to impose their political will, French grandeur is not always a benediction.