The European crisis has exposed France's weakness. President Sarkozy's record is poor, as he bids for a second term. Did De Gaulle create a presidency that does not work?by Jonathan Fenby / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“L’état, c’est moi”—like Louis XIV, de Gaulle, commemorated above, built the office of president in his own image. No leader since has suited it
France is moving towards a moment of truth. The euro crisis, an unpopular president, rivalries within the Socialist party and a flatlining economy are forcing into question the balancing act performed by successive leaders for the past three decades. Abroad, the nation of Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle likes to think of itself as Europe’s leader. This perception is now under threat. Meanwhile, at home, the very nature of the Fifth Republic is increasingly under question. Half a century after the general saved his country from disintegration and gave it a strong executive system of government, opinion polls suggest that an incumbent president could be defeated for the first time in 30 years.
Things will come to a head as France moves to its next presidential election starting in April 2012 against the backdrop of the European sovereign debt crisis, which began in Greece but has raised systemic political issues that France would rather avoid. Long gone are the balmy days of the 1980s when François Mitterrand, the former French president, and Helmut Kohl, erstwhile German chancellor, held hands at the first world war battleground of Verdun to symbolise the reconciliation between the two major protagonists of Europe’s 75-year civil war. Today, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel peck one another on the cheek when they meet but, reflecting their nations, they are poles apart in temperament and mindset as they approach Europe’s existential challenges. While the Germans put their faith in rule-based systems, the French prefer to bank on their ability to conjure a solution out of adversity.
If the mercurial Sarkozy could pull off such a trick in the face of the eurozone crisis, he would not only be assured of re-election, but would mark himself as a leader of global stature—able to show that politicians do not always have to be outrun by markets. The integrationist vision of Jacques Delors, the pioneering head of the European Commission, might even burst back into life. France’s presidency of the G20, which draws to an end in November, would be crowned in glory.