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An American in Paris

France | French president Nicolas Sarkozy is changing the image of his homeland and of transatlantic relations

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

In his withdrawal speech earlier this month, Gov. Mitt Romney worried that "unless America changes course, we will become the France of the 21st century-still a great nation, but no longer the leader of the world, no longer the superpower." Meanwhile in a remarkable turnabout, French president Nicolas Sarkozy seems bent on remaking France in the image of America.

Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant father and a Greek Jewish mother, calls himself "proud" to wear the label "Sarko the American." He speaks of his love of the American dream and of the cultural icons of the 20th century, from Elvis Presley to Ernest Hemingway to Martin Luther King Jr. He thanks the United States for saving France in two world wars, for rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan, and for fighting communism during the cold war. And since his election as president last May, Sarkozy has redefined France's troubled relationship with the United States.

Americans who listen to this French head of state have to pinch themselves. For decades French leaders have spoken with scorn of American culture and gone their own way on policy matters. When France refused to join the Iraq war effort in 2003, the cafeteria staff of the U.S. House of Representatives struck the word "French" from menus. Members of Congress ordered "Freedom fries" and "freedom toast."

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Sarkozy is so pro-American that during his campaign he sometimes rode around the French countryside dressed in a red-checked shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, prompting one reporter to complain that Sarkozy was acting like "George W. Bush on his Texan ranch." In his memoir Testimony, published in English last year, Sarkozy calls America "the greatest democracy in the world." He notes that the United States and France have never gone to war against each other. He praises the American entrepreneurial spirit, calling the United States a "new frontier."

More remarkably, Sarkozy shows support for U.S. foreign policy: Writing that he feels "close to Israel," he defends Israel's right to attack Hezbollah and urges a harder line toward Russia, China, and Iran.

Some Americans are returning the love. In November the United States Congress welcomed him with loud cheers and standing ovations. President George W. Bush called Sarkozy "the kind of fellow I like to deal with." Rudy Giuliani said, "France is one of my favorite countries now." Romney, who did Mormon missionary work in France in the 1960s, called Sarkozy a "blood brother."

In Testimony, Sarkozy relentlessly criticizes contemporary French policies that create a culture in which money is suspect and work is unvalued. "France has been discouraging initiative and punishing success for the past 25 years," Sarkozy writes. The result: "Our annual growth rate loses a half a point every 10 years." He notes that French unemployment has been stuck at 10 percent for the past 20 years, roughly double that of its neighbors. Salaries and pensions in the public sector soak up 45 percent of the national budget. Citing Britain as a model, Sarkozy advocates reforms that include tax cuts, smaller government, looser labor laws, and lower pension privileges.

Since his election to office, Sarkozy has been busy slashing taxes and expanding the 35-hour workweek. Parisians are burning with talk of tax cuts, tax deductions for homes and mortgages, elimination of inheritance taxes, elimination of taxes on overtime pay. "Nothing is more important than restoring work as a cardinal value," Sarkozy writes. "And to do that there is only one solution: proving that work pays."

There is irony in Sarkozy, the grandson of (as nativist Jean-Marie Le Pen reminded voters) "three foreign grandparents," devoting a chapter of Testimony to defend himself against charges of racism and xenophobia. Sarkozy hopes to integrate minority youth into the life of the country by renouncing both multiculturalist and nativist approaches. Instead, he is promoting pro-growth policies with the goal of offering expanded opportunity to all.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after Sarkozy's speech to Congress: "You just heard a Ronald Reagan speech from the president of France. It was an out of body experience."

-Robert Carle is a professor at The King's College, New York City

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