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Is Sarkozy Serious About Reform?

By George Will

PARIS -- French libraries are said to file their nation's constitutions -- there have been more than a dozen since 1789; the current one is a relatively ancient 49 years old -- under periodicals. Now Nicolas Sarkozy, France's peripatetic new president, has created a commission on constitutional reform. The commission includes Jack Lang who, as minister of culture in 1983 under President Francois Mitterrand, staged a sublimely unserious conference on the (supposed) world economic crisis, featuring the likes of Sophia Loren, Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer.

Is Sarkozy a serious man? Some American conservatives consider him a kindred spirit and think they see in his election a heartening portent of their coming revival: He succeeded an intensely unpopular two-term president of his own party (Jacques Chirac) by promising bold reforms. Perhaps.

But Guy Sorman, a conservative writer who has known Sarkozy in politics and as, he says, a friend for 30 years, believes that like most politicians the president is not a man of culture and ideas, but unlike most French politicians "he does not pretend to be." He is, Sorman says, a "Keynesian" -- a believer in using government to regulate the economy by managing demand -- "who doesn't know who Keynes was."

Sarkozy does know of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, who was one of Margaret Thatcher's intellectual heroes. Sarkozy has, however, said, "I don't wake up every morning asking what Hayek or Adam Smith would have done." That is, unfortunately, obvious. A fountain of suspiciously opaque formulations (he advocates "regulated liberalism" and "humane globalization"), he is pleased that "the word 'protection' is no longer taboo." (When was it ever taboo in France?) He is committed to continuing protections of the most cosseted French faction, the farmers. When calling for a "genuine European industrial policy," he asks: "Competition as an ideology, as a dogma, what has it done for Europe?" Worse, he wants to curtail the independence of -- that is, politicize -- the one institution that can save France from itself, the European Central Bank, which can restrain France's ruinous preferences for a loose monetary policy and inflation as slow-motion repudiation of debt.

In Sarkozy's book "Testimony," he notes that 30 years ago Britain had a GDP 25 percent lower than that of France. Now Britain's is 10 percent higher. What happened? Margaret Thatcher did. But although Sarkozy vows a "rupture" with the past, he is not bold enough to affirm an affinity with her and to seriously challenge the consensus at the root of France's social sclerosis: Both left and right reject economic liberalism, the left because of its regnant socialism, the right because it regards statism as a prerequisite for national greatness.

France's unemployment rate has not been below 8 percent in 25 years -- not since 1982, when Francois Mitterrand inadvertently did what Thatcher intentionally did -- killed socialism. Elected president in 1981 promising a "rupture with capitalism," he kept that promise pitilessly. He had the most sweeping program of nationalizations ever proposed for a free economy; he increased pensions, family allowances, housing allowances and the minimum wage. The franc was devalued three times and soon he was forced to adopt "socialist rigor" (austerity).

French leftism is perfectly reactionary. Wielding a word with semi-sacred connotations in France, socialists say they are "the resistance." They are not for anything; they are against surrendering any of their entitlements. They stand against three menaces. One is "neoliberalism" -- markets supplanting the state as the primary allocator of wealth and opportunity. The second is the Americanization of culture by imports of American entertainments (see the third). The third is globalization (see the first and second).

In May, in an election with the highest turnout (85 percent) since 1981, Sarkozy's socialist opponent, Segolene Royal, a princess of vagueness, won 47 percent of the vote for, essentially, "resistance." Remarkably, she defeated Sarkozy among voters ages 18 to 59 -- the working population. It does not bode well for reform that he won by winning huge majorities among those most dependent on the welfare state -- 61 percent among those 60 to 69 and 68 percent among those over 70.

One in four French workers is employed in the public sector, which devours 54 percent of GDP. (The U.S. percentage is about 34.) The fact that for 15 years France's GDP and output per hour worked have been declining relative to those of Britain and the United States surely is related to the fact that 60 percent of the French respond positively to the word "bureaucrat." American conservatives should seek happy harbingers elsewhere.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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