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Change, Sarkozy Style

By David Ignatius

PARIS -- Watching Nicolas Sarkozy on stage at a conference of French business leaders here, you see a man with the raw, feral political instincts of a Huey Long or Lyndon Johnson. He is strutting, preening, cajoling, threatening -- rolling his eyes heavenward in one moment, and barking out commands in the next.

This is not, in short, your usual French president. He is not a grand and distant figure who talks to the French people as if they were his children, as did his predecessors Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand. Instead he is in the country's face -- a "beast of the Seine," in one description -- the walking embodiment of the "rupture" he wants to bring to French political and economic life.

Sarkozy may be the most interesting political personality on the world stage today. American presidential candidates talk about turning a page in the nation's life, but Sarkozy has actually been doing it in his first four months in the Elysee Palace. He has co-opted his Socialist rivals, crushed opponents within his own party and defied expectations about what a French president should and shouldn't do.

Sarkozy reminds you that politics is a contact sport. Change is about breaking conventions, giving offense, twisting arms, punishing enemies. To be a change agent, Sarkozy-style, is also to be a bit of a demagogue. The dark side of the man is whispered about in Paris -- the deals he made, the deft back-stabbing of opponents, the secret networks of influence that he bent to his own purposes.

The French president takes the podium here dressed in a sleek black suit, flashing a sly smile. His handlers describe him as a throwback to JFK, but he looks today more like a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack" -- somewhere between Dean Martin and Joey Bishop.

The very fact that he is appearing before the French business group known as "Medef" is itself a break with precedent. Part of the old French "social economy" consensus was a conviction that there was something unpleasant about business -- certainly about making money. To be an entrepreneur in this culture was regarded as dangerously "Anglo-Saxon." No wonder no president before Sarkozy had spoken at Medef's annual gathering.

Sarkozy gives a stemwinder of a speech. He tells the audience that he is determined to break with the "received ideas" that have hurt the nation. If France has slower growth than other countries, he says, it's because the French, with their 35-hour week, don't value work enough. If it's uncompetitive, it's because taxes are too high and rules limiting business are too pervasive. "Our blockages are first of all in our head," he says.

It must be said that Sarkozy so far has talked a more aggressive game on economic policy than he has actually played. He has avoided the confrontations with France's powerful labor unions that will be necessary to break the practices he denounces. Indeed, his big policy announcement here was to allow more business activity on Sunday -- a popular idea but hardly a profile in courage.

Sarkozy certainly has been breaking some verbal taboos in foreign policy. Gone is the old Gaullist game of defining French interests in opposition to America, and of currying favor with the Arabs at the expense of Israel. He warned a conference of French ambassadors last week that unless Iran halts its nuclear program, the alternative will be "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

The bully in Sarkozy is on view here, as well. He taunts the defeated Socialist Party, from which he has plucked prominent members for his own administration, such as Bernard Kouchner and Jacques Attali. "I should be the one who knows best how to use the human wealth of the Socialist Party," he boasts. He crudely jawbones the European Central Bank for a cheaper euro, insisting in the same moment that he believes in the bank's independence. And he remains locked in a nasty feud with his longtime rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was indicted in July for allegedly lying about efforts to sabotage Sarkozy. (Villepin is said to be readying some bombshells of his own.)

During the four years that I lived in France, I began to wonder if this country would ever change. Conservatism seemed embedded in every part of French life, from its trade unions to its business elite. Fear of the future was a national conviction. That's the psychology of immobilism that Sarkozy has shattered. He is making the French dizzy with his talk of rupture, but so far they seem to like it.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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