What the Sarko Victory Really Means

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Horns began honking about 8PM on Sunday night.

"It’s probably the election…Sarkozy must have won," said a woman’s voice from the kitchen. The woman was convinced that the election marked a critical turning point for France.

Since we live in one of the most bourgeois quartiers, the 16th, a Ségolène victory would have been greeted by gloom and despair. (A friend announced that he would leave the country if Ségolène won.) The noise could only mean one thing: she had lost. The Hungarian had won. And soon, if Ségolène’s prediction — or curse — were accurate, cars would be aflame all over Paris.

Cars were lit up on that night; but dozens of cars are set alight every night in France. English yobs get drunk and throw up. French voyous set cars on fire. Like so many other things that define life on both sides of the Channel, it is just a matter of translation.

Everyone seems to have taken this election seriously. Here, we make an effort to render unto this Frog Caesar and his Anglo-Saxon kibitzers the disrespect they all deserve. Not that there is anything wrong with Sarkozy. He is a short, energetic Napoleonic figure, it is true. But in a crowd of French politicians, he stands as tall as anyone since de Gaulle. Jacques Lang is a hopeless clown. Villepin is a stuffed-shirt fool. Chirac is a cunning old wolf. Ségolène is a pretty airhead.

Sarkozy hates Chirac and Villepin; the two tried to frame him and get him in trouble with his wife. Chirac hates Sarkozy because he sided with his rival, Balladur, and had an affair with Chirac’s daughter. Everyone hates Ségolène, including the father of her four children.

But put a group of politicians together, anywhere in the world, and they will always smell like over-ripe cheese. Still, it is fun saying wicked things about Frenchmen to a group of mostly Anglo-Saxon readers. Americans and Brits have a petty disregard for the French, which expresses itself in asinine ways. They imagine the French are devious and snobbish…which is true, but irrelevant.

At the launch of the war in Iraq, for example, Chirac helpfully warned that the war would be a mess; he said he wanted nothing to do with it. Instead of thanking him, U.S. Congressman Bob Ney removed French toast and French fries from the Capitol Hill cafeteria. Ney was later convicted of fraud and is now serving a 30-month sentence at a correctional facility in Morgantown, West Virginia.

And as to France’s economy, is there a single economist in England or America who doesn’t think it is hopeless? France is in decline, they all believe. Its economy is in perpetual crisis…its leaders are incompetent, spineless collectivists…and if something is not done soon, the whole place will collapse in a heap. And what do they think should be done? The French need to act more like Anglo-Saxons, of course!

What is amazing about this vanity is that most of the French think it is true too. That’s why Sarko won the election. At every campaign stop, the "angry little man in a dark suit," as the Independent tagged him, got up and told listeners what a disaster the Socialists had made of the country. He identified the economy as a key irritation, repeatedly complaining that the French aren’t allowed to work long enough or hard enough to compete with the rest of the world.

Since the Socialists imposed the 35-hour workweek, he noted, the average Frenchman labors only 600 hours per year. In England and America, the tillers of the soil, the weavers at their looms, and the City-bound money-shufflers put in a full 30% more hours. Our personal experience, after living and working among French and English for many years, is that these statistics are misleading. Both groups cheat. The Anglo-Saxons pretend to work hard; the French pretend not to.

Still, you have to admire the chutzpah of Sarko for pointing out that his country is a mess; his own party has been running the place for the last 12 years, with Sarkozy himself as one of Jacques Chirac’s principle lieutenants.

Let us look at more figures. Think France is unproductive? It has the highest productivity figures in Europe, according to the Financial Times — nearly 120% of the U.K. level, and going up. Think France is poor? Well, the French may work only 75% as hard as Englishmen, but they make 90% of Britain’s GDP per capita — about the same as Germany and Italy. And the British figures are greatly inflated by the extraordinarily high earnings of a very small group of people who work in the financial industry. Whether the average person in Britain lives as well as the average Frenchman, who knows? But when the Daily Mail posed the question, an astonishing one out of every four Englishmen said he’d like to emigrate to France!

Everyone wants to be as happy as Gott im Frankenreich, as the Germans used to say, before invading. Despite all the auto-critiques of France, it’s still a very nice place to live. Partly because the typical Frenchmen, while he is as distracted by politics as much as anyone, has the good sense to focus his keenest attention on his soup…his lilacs…and his cheese. And the typical French politician is shrewd enough not to take his politics too seriously, either.

Indeed, there are only a few things the French take seriously.

Remember, for instance, Felix Faure, who died suddenly — in office — in 1899. The priest arriving on the scene asked if the old man had still had his "consciousness" about him when he died ("connaissance," in French is a word that can be translated as either "knowledge" or "acquaintance"). "Not so," replied the policeman, "she left by the side door."

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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