Given the enormous stakes involved in it, one would have thought the big news Thursday was the accord hammered out earlier in the day by European Union leaders to deal with the euro zone’s monstrous debt crisis. One would have thought so, but one was wrong.
The real news Thursday was French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealing he’d been the guy who saved the day for Europe, and declaring himself prepared to prod France into pulling itself up by its equally indebted bootstraps, too. In doing so, Sarkozy used a nationally televised prime-time interview Thursday night to unofficially kick off his 2012 re-election campaign by reminding viewers how the dire situation he’s now defending France and Europe from is everyone else’s fault. Overcoming it, by contrast, is all him—with an assist from Angela Merkel.
It was almost enough to make one sorely miss the regularly scheduled Master Chef reality TV show that got bumped.In its place, Sarkozy served up the Brussels accord topped with political drama and hyperbole.
“If there hadn’t been an accord, it wouldn’t only have been Europe sinking in catastrophe, but the entire world,” Sarkozy said of the agreement he pushed through with Merkel—which he likened to the historical Franco-German triumphs by lofty predecessors “de Gaulle and Adenauer, Giscard and Schmidt, Mitterrand and Kohl”.
Sarkozy’s immediate presidential forerunner, Jacques Chirac, probably resented his omission from that list, but others parties cited elsewhere by the French leader during his discussion of the debt crisis would have been pleased to have been left out.
“Greece came into the euro with numbers that were false, and its economy was not prepared to assume an integration into the euro zone,” Sarkozy said—slightly weasel-like–just hours after the agreement was banged out in Brussels to save Athens from default, and the euro zone from doom. “We now are paying the consequence.”
Well, yes–but we knew that. So Sarkozy pressed on with lesser-known details. For example, despite persistent conflicts with EU partners and banks preventing agreement right up to the end, Sarkozy told interviewers he managed to control his infamously short temper—and penchant for drama queen theatrics—in order to remain cool and focused for the greater public interest. “I’m human, and perhaps have made errors in my life,” Sarkozy intoned, referring to notorious insults he’s spat and tirades he’s thrown when faced with adversity or opposition. “But (during negotiations) I didn’t lose my temper. I told myself that things are too serious for that.”
Well done indeed. Sarkozy also played it coy when topics shifted from Europe to France–notably his intentions for a re-election bid next year that have long been a foregone conclusion despite most polls indicating he’ll be routed. Though he said he’d only make an official announcement—as most pundits have long predicted—“towards the end of January, beginning of February”, Sarkozy couldn’t help showing habitual swagger as he suggested his own future political plans are of minor importance now. “I’ve made my choice—that of being president until the very last minute of my mandate, and not poisoning the French people (with politicking)…I have the job of being president to fill.”
That sounded good—even above-the-fray presidential–but like many things with Sarkozy, it didn’t last. To better contrast his actions in defense of euro zone nations and France, Sarkozy switched gears into partisan politics, and began attacking as a form of defense. Sarkozy ravaged propositions that have been advanced by Socialist Party presidential candidate François Hollande—such as hiring 60,000 new school teachers—as certain to transform France’s debt problem from grave to terminal. He also denounced measures passed by previous Socialist governments that lowered the retirement age to 60 and work week to 35 hours as “craziness, and social and economic catastrophe(s) that ruined the country’s competitiveness”. As a remedy for the lingering ills of that leftist leadership, Sarkozy said his duty as president required him to force France into facing facts and acting responsibly to safeguard its future. In that spirit, Sarkozy admitted the government’s risibly optimistic 1.7% growth estimation for 2012 is to be cut to 1% (a figure most economists think will be closer to 0.8%). Due to the reduction in revenues that involves, Sarkozy said he had ordered his cabinet to find $8.4 billion to $11.2 billion in new savings from next year’s budget, atop the $15.4 billion announced in August.
Yet despite his desired display of presidential bone fides in claiming to sugar-coating nothing while Socialist rivals promise more impossible pie in the sky, the already unpopular Sarkozy endeavored to soften his punches. “What we’re announcing isn’t austerity, but rather rigorous management,” Sarkozy insisted, somehow managing not to smile. “Austerity would be to lower salaries and pensions. I refuse that.”
That wasn’t all Sarkozy refused to do. Even as he lustily trashed past and present Socialist policy objectives as wasteful and impossible to finance—indirectly assigning them a lead role in building up France’s teetering $2.4 trillion debt—Sarkozy assiduously avoided acknowledging the dramatic rise of public debt since conservatives took power in 2002, and under his own presidency in particular. He also neglected to mention the many measures he’s been forced to roll back or plow under after they’d already been passed into law, and were found to be too costly and counter-productive—including Bush-style tax breaks primarily benefiting the wealthy.
Instead, French viewers heard how their president was central to saving Europe from crisis; is now ready to focus those efforts on France and whip the country into shape for its own good–and by the sheer force of his will and sense of duty if need be. A tough sell, indeed, to a population whose majority (a recent poll shows) expresses no confidence in Sarkozy’s leadership in general, and and none in his abilities to help resolve the European crisis in particular. To turn that around—and possibly even win re-election—Sarkozy will have to stop railing about what doesn’t work, what went wrong, and who else is to blame, and start proposing solutions that will work–and which that voters can rally around. But doing that will require him to surrender the doomed strategy he’s been clinging to of arguing that–bad as things are now–they’d be worse with someone else as president. It’s seems unlikely he’d be able to make such a switch this close to official campaigning, but if he did so it might not only be a game-changer–it would really be news.