Of all the names that French politicians of the left hurled at Nicolas Sarkozy during the elections here, one of their favorites was â€œSarkozy the American.â€ It was the nastiest insult the Socialists could think of in their campaign to demonize the leader of the French right. Anti-Americanism is usually a vote-winning card in French elections.
So it tells you something about which way the wind is blowing in this proud and prickly country that Mr. Sarkozy was not only elected President by a substantial margin. He was also rewarded with a conservative majority in parliament, which â€“ though somewhat reduced - is big enough to give him the means to carry out an ambitious plan of reforms.
Some of them have a familiar ring to Americans, but are considered radical changes in this country. President Sarkozy wants to:
1. Make interest on home mortgages a tax deduction.
2. Abolish inheritance taxes for all but the most wealthy.
3. Cut taxes on business.
4. Remove some of the tight legal restrictions that make it difficult for businesses to fire employees.
Sarkozy also intends to â€œfight crimeâ€ and curb immigration. Bush administration officials would feel right at home with most of Sarkozy's program â€“ except that they would probably feel it is too timid.
Like many of the French (and unlike most of their politicians), President Sarkozy actually likes Americans. He admires the dynamism of their economy, and believes that unless France can make its own economy more business friendly, it will continue to be stuck with high unemployment and low growth.
Sarkozy's message to the voters was that something must be done to pull France out of a rut. Most of the French know this. They have known it for years. But few French politicians dare tell them the truth: For example, France has been living so far beyond its means that almost all of the income tax it collects goes to paying interest on the national debt.
The huge government bureaucracy (a French word, by the way) is a bottomless pit. Sarkozy has promised that in the future only one out of two departing state employees will be replaced. That may be a slow way to cut the fat, but it is also a revolution in a country where highly centralized government is a centuries-old tradition.
Other French politicians have promised reforms. Former President Jacques Chirac tried and failed in the face of public resistance to change. What makes Mr. Sarkozy seem different is the strength of his determination to carry through on his promises. He knows that his honeymoon with the public may be short, and will try to ram some of the tougher parts of his program through parliament during the summer when the rest of France is on vacation.
In foreign affairs, Americans should find Sarkozy easier to deal with than his predecessor. He will not be â€œBush's poodle.â€ I suspect that most Americans don't like French poodles anyway. But he will try to be a friend. And he believes that friends have a right, indeed a duty, to disagree when they do not see eye to eye.
President Chirac made no bones about his opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. France learned long ago in Indochina and Algeria the eventual cost of Western occupation of a Moslem country.
It's too bad that Mr. Chirac had such an undiplomatic way of giving Americans the benefit of France's hard earned wisdom. If he had been a bit more sympathetic in his public pronouncements and his dealings with the White House, some Americans might have paid more attention.
I suspect that if â€œSarkozy the Americanâ€ had been president at the time, he would have been more persuasive. Americans might have been less likely to see him as merely scoring points at home with the anti-American card, and more likely to listen to some friendly advice, even if in the end they did not follow it.