By William Pfaff
PARIS—It sometimes pays to be a nondescript politician, like Gordon Brown of Britain. Flamboyance of the Latin kind gets you into the newspapers, but for bad reasons as well as good.
Nicolas Sarkozy of France has been in the news both for fainting while jogging and, in another report, because his wife, Carla Bruni, is said to be trying to polish him up to be more attractive to the French intellectuals. He admits that you can’t win elections with the intellectuals, but you may lose if they are against you.
Sarkozy is a man noted not for charm but for his unchecked energies and the restless activity that seems to have been responsible for a fainting spell while jogging, and an overnight hospitalization.
He won the presidential office two years ago through tireless campaigning, ambitious if sometimes scattershot reform promises, and terrific force of personality. He ran against an exhausted and divided Socialist party with an attractive but unconvincing candidate, Ségolène Royal. Whatever his rough charm, he did convince the majority of French voters that he would seriously attack the neglected problems of society, and end the lethargy and drift of the last years of the long Jacques Chirac presidency.
He has done what he has promised, and made positive changes in the big state sector of the economy and in labor relations in the private sector. He met every problem head-on, yet was highly flexible in his dealings with business and labor. His presidency of Europe in the second half of 2008, when France led the European Union, was dynamic and successful as the global economic crisis erupted, and he made Europe the international leader in dealing with the crisis Georgia provoked with Russia during the summer Olympics when it tried to claw back one of its lost separatist enclaves. He left the EU office with a vastly improved reputation in Europe.
But inside France he remains hated by the left for his supposed market-economy views and pro-Americanism, both of which actually proved when tested to be forgotten campaign politics. When the economic crisis came, he proved to be as much of a state interventionist as any of his French predecessors, whatever their party.
He took France back into full NATO participation when there seemed to be nothing gained by staying out, but has maintained a prudent distance from Obama administration enthusiasm for winning George Bush’s “war on terror” under another name and in another place, Afghanistan-Pakistan.
He took on reform of the state’s huge, ideology-bound state education system, and its neglected and declining universities (unable to compete with the elite “grandes ecoles” system of higher education), issues on which every recent government has been defeated.
The left will never like him, and the right, while it supports him, has a socially condescending view of this political buccaneer of immigrant origin, who uses common language and has common manners.
The critical man on the street says that “he talks like a grocer” and lacks the dignity of his presidential office. His elegant Italian wife, Carla Bruni, is at work on this.
Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is another matter entirely. He is a success in politics apparently because the majority of Italians like him, envy his flamboyance, admire his success from obscure origins, his wealth—and his boasting about his sexual powers, his business schemes and his outsmarting of the taxmen, investigating judges and police in the shady deals he’s been accused of making while building his colossal fortune.
Italian observers sometimes say that the mass of ordinary Italians admire Berlusconi for his cynicism because they share it. Whether they respect him for it is another matter. If they elect him as an exaggerated version of the supposedly prototypical Italian, that does not, after all, give the world a very enthralling picture of Italians and Italy.
Now he is in trouble again. The newspapers have just published the prime minister’s purported indiscretions with an escort, who says she was engaged to spend a night with him. Being a prudent young woman who had previously had unfortunate experiences with men, she recorded their conversations. The tape included not only what he had to say about his inclinations in intimate pleasures but supposedly his casual revelation of unreported Phoenician tombs found on his property in Sardinia, contents of which ornament his residences. He unqualifiedly denies this.
It would be a serious crime to have taken the Phoenician relics and not reported them, and while he has managed to get legislation exempting him from prosecution for civil crimes during his presidency, it doesn’t seem to cover offenses against Italy’s archeological legacy. It would be a curious affair if Berlusconi’s downfall should actually begin with what was found while excavating a swimming pool, and end with braggadocio before an attractive woman whom he didn’t have to seduce.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.