French President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected five years ago by promising to modernize France's societal infrastructure and bring it more into line with America's: less government reliance, more freedom in life and work. It was a tall order, but his mandate was overwhelming, with a six-percentage-point win over Socialist rival Segolene Royal. Sarkozy was full of vigor and free-market, limited-government ideas imported directly from across the Atlantic.
But then something got in the way: France. It's a case of ambition being unable to surmount the overwhelming power of entrenched history.
The battle of independent-minded men against the French nanny-state mentality didn't start with Sarkozy. In 1848, for example, economist Frederic Bastiat was already comparing the U.S. Constitution to that of France:
"The following is the beginning of the preamble to [the French] Constitution: 'France has constituted itself a Republic for the purpose of raising all the citizens to an ever-increasing degree of morality, enlightenment, and well-being.' ... Is it not by yielding to this strange delusion that we are led to expect everything from an energy not our own? ... The Americans formed another idea of the relations of the citizens with the Government when they placed these simple words at the head of their constitution: 'We, the people of the United States, for the purpose of forming a more perfect union, of establishing justice, of securing interior tranquility, of providing for our common defense, of increasing the general well-being, and of securing the benefits of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, decree,' etc. Here there is no chimerical creation, no abstraction, from which the citizens may demand everything. They expect nothing except from themselves and their own energy."
Now, facing a hard-fought re-election battle that currently predicts a marked second-round loss to Segolene Royal's former domestic partner, Socialist Francois Hollande, Sarkozy is unrecognizable on the campaign trail as the man of five years ago.
If people didn't already know how exhausting the effort to reform France has been for Sarkozy, his wife, Carla Bruni, claimed in a recent interview that she's worried about him because he gives his all to his job and barely sleeps. Still, he took to the stage this week in a massive Sarkorgy in front of tens of thousands of supporters near Paris to announce that he needs the French to "help me" -- a not-so-subtle reference to President/General Charles de Gaulle's "Help Me!" speech of April 1961 amid a coup d'état against him by French nationalists in Algeria (the "Generals' Putsch"), in which he pleaded with the French military and people to see where the country could be headed as compared with the positive direction it was headed under his presidency.
Sarkozy's meaning behind the slogan is clear: I've busted my behind to change this place, and while it's been harder than expected, please don't vote for the Socialist who risks taking it in a direction you probably can't even imagine.
Except that the French can indeed imagine what a socialist implosion looks like now, because Greece serves as a rather prominent example. Still, I run into French people every day in Paris who tell me that "Sarkozy is for the rich; Hollande is for the poor." Sarkozy is up against that kind of bumper-sticker stupidity, and it's about as fireproof as anything de Gaulle had to fight back in the day -- including Nazis. Sarkozy must feel about as powerless as John McCain did up against Obama's "Yes, we can!"
"Help me!" sounds about right as a French campaign slogan when up against the omnipotence of a Socialist bearing promises of freebies and salvation during an economic crisis. De Gaulle led the minority French resistance; Sarkozy is trying to lead the minority French resistance against pervasive stupidity. Again, I think de Gaulle had it easier.
Sarkozy is now calling for firewalling France off from Europe to save the country from the nonsense practiced by other nations with which France shares uncontrolled borders -- including revising all the Schengen accords he helped to create or amend.
It sounds like the mea-culpa death rattle of a president as his political career careens towards the big white light. Here's hoping he gets a grip and finds the will to live and to martyr himself for another five years. Sarko the Tourniquet would beat five years of socialist bloodletting.