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The French Election and the American Way

By Froma Harrop

France's next president wants his compatriots to be more like us -- us, as in U.S. That's what Nicolas Sarkozy's Socialist rival charged during the recent campaign. The French left labels much of what it abhors as "American," not unlike the U.S. right's childish practice of using "French" as a smear.

Make no mistake: Sarkozy's voters have no intention of becoming Americanized. And if Sarkozy can pull off what he promises -- to modernize the economy and bring order to the streets, while leaving the safety net mostly intact -- then France could become a model for the land of burgers and freedom fries.

Sarkozy was elected to change the French way just enough to save what the citizens most treasure. France has fallen behind economically and needs more wealth if it hopes to sustain the sweet life. Some of the fluff may have to come out of the pillows, but do not think for a moment that the French have voted for sleepless nights of American-style anxiety.

A conservative, Sarkozy has summoned the French to work harder and longer, but one has to understand the context. The French can work harder and longer without working particularly hard or long, by our standards, anyway.

And at least one of the social programs puts France at a competitive advantage over the United States. We speak of the health-care system, which the World Health Organization ranks as best on planet.

Health care in France accounts for 10.5 percent of the gross domestic product, but in the United States eats up 15.3 percent. Of course, everyone in France is covered, while 46 million Americans go uninsured.

The French choose their own doctors and can go to specialists without getting anyone's permission. The government usually pays 70 percent of the doctors' bills and up to 100 percent of hospital costs. People can buy private insurance to cover what the government doesn't.

Sarkozy will probably be more American in his handling of disaffected minorities, many of them Muslim immigrants and their children. Here, the French can learn from us.

For impoverished minorities, life in France is strangely double-edged. The government pours a ton of money in their neighborhoods, but French employers discriminate against them.

Himself the son of an immigrant, Sarkozy was widely reviled in these poor areas after calling their rioting young people "scum." But he could be best thing that ever happened to these angry neighborhoods.

Sarkozy has been likened to Rudolph Giuliani, who restored social order to New York City's formerly crime-ridden streets. When Giuliani became mayor in 1994, he immediately went to the mat with Al Sharpton and other professional agitators. He was accused of being racially insensitive -- and sometimes he was -- but he totally changed the thinking on what was acceptable behavior. Crime rates plummeted, along with racial tensions, and the local economy took off.

Like Giuliani before him, Sarkozy would be doing the poor suburbs a favor by not indulging anti-social conduct. Odd for a conservative, Sarkozy favors an affirmative action program that would force French businesses to employ minorities. The French left opposes such policies as an offense to an officially color-blind society.

Sarkozy has made a point of being pro-American. But in his victory speech, he called on the United States to stop being an obstacle in the fight against global warming. Happily for him and the rest of the world, the leading U.S. presidential candidates (from both parties) appear to be grownups on this growing threat.

The best reading of the election results is that the French want more of what we have without losing what they have. American voters should feel likewise.


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