(photo credit: AP [file])
The news was splashed across Le Monde's front page - French President Nicolas Sarkozy's most popular campaign promise is declared unconstitutional. In fact, only one small item of a broad fiscal measure was invalidated by the Conseil Constitutionnel. The Socialist Party, defeated in presidential and legislative elections, in the parliament, in public opinion polls, turned to the "committee of wise men" in a last-ditch attempt to knock down key measures of Sarkozy's legislative program. And failed again.
Sarkozy's energetic hands-on presidency is a welcome change from the lackluster Jacques Chirac. One hundred days into his term, the new president enjoys a 64-percent approval rating. He has put together a dynamic government and is working briskly to implement his electoral program. It is too soon to judge the long-term results and difficult to evaluate the ongoing action, often obscured by a vociferous anti-Sarko minority, over-represented in French media and unduly accredited internationally.
Though Le Monde speaks to a small audience, its "in-depth" reporting and lingering reputation as newspaper of record resonate in France and abroad, leading international commentators to perpetuate its curious brand of gossip, mistaken as reliable information.
THE PAPER'S obsessional resentment of Sarkozy is music to the ears of a disgruntled Socialist Party that cannot shake off its Marxist chains. The long-standing SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal-Francois Hollande domestic spat ended in a mutual knockout: Royal kicked him out of the house, and he pushed her out of the party limelight.
Contested, but still party chief, Hollande ineptly leads the charge against Sarkozy's popular government. He accuses the president of being omnipresent, hyperactive and nothing but talk. The Socialists denounce every new piece of legislation as unnecessary, ineffectual and a danger to society. Impoverished middle-class citizens, impatient to benefit from growth-stimulating fiscal measures, are deaf to Hollande's gripe that this government is "giving gifts to the rich." But TV cameras lap it up, radio broadcasts repeat it, and the public opinion polls that contradict it are never developed in editorial content.
The unsuccessful anti-Sarko presidential campaign, which often descended into the gutter triad of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism, was carried over to an anti- "UMP state" legislative campaign and failed again; Sarkozy's UMP won a comfortable majority. After scrambling for a shotgun marriage with centrist FranÃ§ois Bayrou on a Neither-Right-nor-Left platform, the opposition hollered foul when Sarkozy named former Socialist health minister Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister and invited other high-profile Socialists into his government.
At this writing, Kouchner is on an official mission in Baghdad, the first French minister to visit that country since the 2003 clash with the US.
The defeated Left promised a "third round in the streets." Sarkozy delivered legislation imposing minimum service in public transportation, effectively curbing the power of striking unions to paralyze the economy. (This was one of the popular measures validated by the Conseil Constitutionnel.) The next step will be the realignment of public service employee benefits with the private sector, counterbalanced by opportunities for career advancement and increased earnings.
French media made a scandal of the sudden liberation of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian-Libyan doctor, imprisoned for eight years in Libya on trumped-up charges. Sarkozy was blamed for taking credit when he simply reaped the rewards of a done deal and, simultaneously, of "overpaying" the unsavory Muammar Gaddafi with military partnership and nuclear power.
Critics said he acted like a divine-right king, sending his wife as emissary, and in the next breath dismissed her, a former Schiaparelli model, as a foreign-relations Barbie doll.
These accusations did not come from the nurses and doctor, happy to be free, or from Bulgarian officials, who uphold Sarkozy's version of the affair, or from French citizens, who massively approved the operation. They came from the Socialists, were channeled through Le Monde and spread widely, gathering credibility by the simple process of repetition. International commentators expressed disappointment at Sarkozy's reversion to cynical French diplomacy and dismay at the exchange of nuclear power for a handful of hostages. In fact, no one has been able to verify the terms of the alleged agreements, which, as everyone knows, have been under negotiation since 2004, as the European Union tried unsuccessfully to bargain for the hostage release. Sarkozy denies claims made by Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, in an interview with Natalie NougayrÃ¨de of Le Monde. A parliamentary investigation is scheduled for the fall.
SARKOZY wants to include Libya in an EU-type Mediterranean union that, he hopes, will encourage harmonious relations, promote economic development and combat terrorism and illegal immigration. How will this union differ from the ongoing Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, aptly described by historian Bat Ye'or as the blueprint for Eurabia? Will it include Israel as a full and welcome partner? Gaddafi, notoriously opposed to Israel's existence, reportedly told Sarkozy that he'll join the union if Israel is kept out. This detail drew nary a peep from critics of the hostage liberation deal.
The usual tongues wagged when the president and his family flew to the US for a two-week vacation in a luxurious home rented by wealthy friends in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Lunch with President George W. Bush at the family estate in nearby Kennebunkport, Maine, was cause for further criticism; Sarkozy was chided for sidling up to the "has-been lame duck" American president, and scolded for standing side by side with the "perpetrator" of death and destruction in Iraq.
SHELTERED by an ironclad "hands off the private life of public officials" gentleman's agreement, French presidents entertained call girls and mistresses, their wives cavorted with boyfriends, illegitimate children grew and flourished, billionaires, sheikhs and Third World potentates offered hospitality, couples slept apart or together with impunity. Now, with Le Monde in the lead, the press sticks its head through the president's windows, tracks his wife with paparazzi zeal, snoops to find out who paid how much for the vacation house, catches CÃ©cilia strolling in town the day after she called in sick for the Bush luncheon.
Preliminary agreements with the toothless Libyan regime created an uproar; trade with Iran doesn't deserve mention. Reports that the US government will place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on its list of terrorist organizations gave a backhanded slap to American strong-arm anti-Muslim unilateralism, without revealing the implications of this move for European companies. (An excellent article by Ken Timmerman - "The Sopranos of Iran," frontpagemag.com - explains that European companies will be faced with a clear choice: Sever lucrative trade ties with Iran, thus helping the US weaken and hopefully topple the regime, or pursue trade with Iran and be locked out of the American market.
CRITICS WHO accuse Sarkozy of sinful affinity for the wealthy don't cluck about former president Chirac and his wife, living rent-free in a Paris apartment offered by the family of the late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. When reporters were looking for loose change in Wolfeboro, Chirac was a guest of billionaire FranÃ§ois Pinault in St. Tropez. They weren't friends while he was president?
Sarkozy left Wolfeboro on Saturday and the government was back at work at a brisk pace Monday morning. The anti-Sarkos will be snapping at the president's heels, and fair-minded observers will watch him handle tough choices.
How will he strike a balance between the protectionism he believes necessary to repair the French economy and confidence in free market economics to stimulate healthy growth? Will he resist endemic French anti-war sentiment and build an honest alliance with an American government actively fighting against global jihad? (Kouchner announced in Baghdad that a page has been turned in Franco-American relations.) Will his confidence in the EU preclude resistance against member states that push for collaboration with the enemy?
Will his European penchant for negotiation allow a margin of appreciation for situations in which the use of force may be advisable or inevitable? Will he employ strenuous efforts to liberate the French-Israeli hostage Gilad Schalit, or was the Bulgarian nurse exploit a one-timer? Will his professed commitment to Israel's security resist domestic and external Arab-Muslim pressure? Will his parallel commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state encompass a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground?
Voters - and distant observers - expressed confidence that Sarkozy would waken France from its torpor. They are still on board. And they are waiting for the media to replace its sharp tongue with sharp eyes.
The author, a freelance American writer living in Paris since 1972, is Paris editor of Pajamas Media.