OPINION

In Sarko’s France, the hard work still waits

PAUL WELLS December 3 2007
OPINION

In Sarko’s France, the hard work still waits

PAUL WELLS December 3 2007

In Sarko’s France, the hard work still waits

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

Man bites dog? That's news. On Sunday, 6,000 people, maybe more, marched through Paris's streets in favour of government cutbacks. That's right: Parisians marching against strikes. Of course, 6,000 small-

government enthusiasts don't make a revolution. As if to prove it, French unions pushed haifa million of their own members into the streets two days later. So the people who think the French will have to work longer before retiring, and that Wit were easier to tire employ ees, business would be likelier to hire some, were far outnumbered bythe dead-end defend ers of tired old ways. You could forget the anti strike march ever happened. Except it did.

Among the slogans the pro-government marchers chanted was “Fillon, tiens boni ” Fillon, hold fast. The slogan rhymed, and it cannily identified the true friend of reform in the French government. Perhaps its last true friend. Not Nicolas Sarkozy, for “Sarko, tiens boni” would rhyme too, or close enough. No, François Fillon. The most put-upon, laughedat, insulted prime minister in memory.

The marchers had a good hunch. If France is to change for the better, this must be Fillon’s moment. He has had a long six months at Matignon Palace. He was lucky they let him have it. One of Sarkozy’s first moves was to appropriate La Lanterne, the semi-official Versailles residence of every postwar prime minister, for himself.

Fillon said he was delighted to serve Sarkozy, an “omni-president” who wanted to run the government in person, rather than delegating loftily to his prime minister as Mitterrand and Chirac used to. But there are limits to self-effacement. On the morning of a major speech, Libération ran a front-page photo of Fillon slouching under the headline, “Fillon may even be allowed to speak.” Sarkozy referred publicly to his prime minister as a “collaborateur,” a word that you could

translate as “assistant.” Fillon gave an interview with Paris Match in which he admitted the boss’s word choice had hurt.

What must hurt more has been watching Sarkozy hand over the first half-year of his presidency to dream merchants. First among them is Henri Guaiño, who writes the president’s speeches. And so much more. Guaiño has the office at the Elysée Palace where Valéry Giscard d’Estaing sat when he was president of the Republic. He regularly phones cabinet ministers to upbraid them. Last month, the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy criticized a speech Guaiño wrote. Guaiño fired back: “That pretentious little asshole doesn’t interest me.”

But every head of state has insufferable staffers. The real problem is Guaino’s influ-

ence on Sarkozy. For Fillon, who wrote a book last year with the title France Can Handle the Truth, watching Sarkozy follow Guaino’s lead must be excruciating.

Fillon’s book is an extended plea for “necessary but inherently unpopular measures” that heaps scorn on earlier French leaders for “systematic submission to the erratic movements of opinion.” Caving in to the rule of the street has condemned France to “minor cosmetic adjustments... so-called reforms,” while the Germans right next door increased the retirement age and slashed business taxes while hiking their equivalent of the GST.

Fillon quotes with approval the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet, who wrote: “There is no alternate economic model. The people who bray about that don’t believe it. They are demagogues. Populists.”

Hello, Henri Guaiño. As a student he flunked out of ENA, the training school for France’s political elites, three times in a row. In 1998,

he was fired as Jacques Chirac’s director of economic planning. He has a chip on his shoulder, and a short list of obsessions. His 1998 book, L’Etrange Rénoncement (The Odd Surrender), is a populist plea for alternate economic models. It’s dedicated to “the millions of French who pay for errors they didn’t make.” Guaiño likes protesters who thumb their noses at “the elites.” “The French are conservative? Corporatist? Maybe. Indisciplined? No doubt. But we must take them as they are.”

Instead of reform, Guaiño advocates magic. Deficits? There are “good” deficits and “bad deficits.” The good ones come from tax cuts and “investments,” a word that can justify any expense and—Guaiño doesn’t mention this—has, throughout a generation of French deficits. He claims, insanely, that “in the past 20 years, no large developed country has cut the real level of public spending.” Canada already had. Guaino’s preferred model, the 1981 Reagan tax cuts in the U.S., were such a disaster they led directly to the Reagan tax increases of 1982 and 1986.

His big obsession is interest-rate cuts and competitive devaluation, the notion that when your currency falls your exports become cheap enough to drive growth. In his book he associates a strong franc with “the France of Pierre

Laval.” Laval was executed for collaborating with the Nazis. Guaiño is no less wild-eyed today. The euro? “I know Stalin wanted to eliminate currency. We know the result.”

None of this is idle moonlighting. Sarkozy has spent half a year blowing 15 billion euros on tax cuts that have failed to budge economic growth a tenth of a point. In his spare time he hectors other European leaders for interest-rate cuts so the euro will fall and save French exports. Those leaders come from countries that have already carried out real labour-market reforms. They’re competitive even with a strong euro. Sarkozy, with Guaino’s stick up his back, begs for favours while the hard work waits.

In response to the strikes, Sarkozy is about to hand out more expensive goodies. Fillon’s hand is weak, but he persists. If France can handle the truth he will prevail. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells

The president handed over the first halfyear of his tenure to dream merchants