Après Moi, le Déluge

Five reasons that Europe will rue the loss of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Marc Piasecki/Getty Images
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

I’m not saying, ‘After me, chaos,'” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the newspaper Le Figaro with a wink in an interview published Friday, April 20, on the eve of the first-round election that saw him lose to Socialist Party leader François Hollande. But if Sarkozy was trying to make the indelicate point that, without him, the country is doomed if his looming electoral defeat in the May 6 runoff comes to pass, it’s not just France facing an uncertain future. It’s all of Europe. Critics like to paint the incumbent as “L’Omniprésident” and a “barbaric child,” but the repercussions from his all-but-certain electoral rebuke might be vastly larger than “Tsarkozy’s” critics take his ego to be.

1. The revenge of nationalism. Enthusiasts of the European project have more to fear than a historically strong showing by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party. Hollande’s own brand of nationalism is equally suspicious of European austerity and Anglo-American cooperation. (He made waves announcing he won’t go along with Britain and the United States in coordinating a release of strategic oil reserves.) Hollande’s rise signals that leftist nationalism is no less ascendant than its equivalent on the right. Yet observers on both sides of the Atlantic have focused their fears on nationalist reactionaries, such as those dominating Hungarian politics, and have underappreciated two key developments.

First, thanks to the intimate center-right partnership between Germany’s Angela Merkel and Sarkozy, the European left is quickly beginning to realize it does not hold a conceptual monopoly on transnationalism. The grand political project of putting nationalism in harmony with both globalization and ever-deeper European integration may express fundamentally liberal dreams. But its greatest proponents appeared on the right of center. Radicals’ opposition to that project ensured that the respectable European left was unable to become its champion, while a man like Sarkozy faced no similar obstacles. Not until this election cycle has serious opposition to the harmonizing project emerged on the right. Sarkozy has tried to respond by pandering on immigration, but he is grasping. The respectable right is now the center of gravity for Europe’s transnational hopes — and the respectable left must consider what alternative to offer. For Hollande, who will likely now actually have to govern, the answer is simple: rediscover the nation as the focus of justice, and the state as its source.

Second, a deep disagreement over nationalism is brewing on the right, with the potential for far greater conflict than will be seen on the left. Norway’s mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik might be crazy, but his transnational mission statement — that European civilization is under mortal threat — has broad conservative appeal. The burning question, if the right is right, is whether Europe as they have known and loved it can be saved on a nation-by-nation basis or whether a more unifying, transcendent approach is required. Some, such as Le Pen, answer resoundingly that only France, for instance, can save the French. Increasingly, other conservatives and reactionaries will demand that only a concerted, pan-European effort can measure up to the vast scale of the continent’s religious and demographic change. A Sarkozy loss will strike a powerful blow against the idea that the conventional, center-right compromise on the nationalism question has any integrity. The European Union institutionalizes only one vision of transnationalism. In the long run, huge political possibilities could be opened up by a groundswell of right-wing interest in transcending the nation-state. In the immediate term, however, Sarkozy’s departure will cause more people to fear transnational thinking as a vehicle for right-wing agendas.

2. The eclipse of economics. Despite Sarkozy’s reputation as an egomaniac, the world has long recognized that he has been Merkel’s junior, not senior, partner. Merkel flexed her financial muscle over the whole of the continent, while poor Sarkozy was required to skip across the Mediterranean, to Libya, to make a difference. Sarkozy’s leadership on Libya earned him nary a blip in the polls — not just because war is controversial or even because it is expensive, but because the dominant view has been that politics itself is the subservient accessory in Europe to all things economic. The monstrous totality of Europe’s economic crisis has created the captivating story that if it isn’t finance, it doesn’t really matter. Stubbornly, however, democracies continue to require periodic elections.

The ouster of Sarkozy is an event large enough to reveal that politics still matters. Sarkozy could in that way become the antithesis of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti — removed by voting citizens instead of installed from over their heads. Monti himself is caving in to the realities of popular politics. Paradoxically, in terms of public opinion, the most powerful position for a politician to be in these days may be out of office. Much of Europe is unknowingly waiting for an out-of-office nationalist to reassert the primacy of politics on every level over the monetary rule of appointed bureaucrats.

More than the bad memories ushered in by German economic domination, the real danger to increased fiscal unity in Europe is the longing to live into a future where political ideas and political decisions once again are possible. Being political again means being free from the tyranny of economic considerations. And we all know where that could lead.

3. The rise of boring. Sorry, but nothing about Merkel — or Britain’s David Cameron, or virtually every other European leader — is thrilling. Virtually everything about Sarkozy, however, has been sensationalistic. To pull Sarkozy offstage is to make European leadership the most boring it has been since the 1970s. Sometimes, as American conservatives attest, boring is good (behold, ladies and gentlemen, the power of Calvin Coolidge). But for Europe, boring comes at a time when the longing for meaningful politics is accompanied by a leadership class that lacks the most primal prerequisite of political authority: the language of command.

Often, we now reflexively think of demagogic despotism when we think of commanding language. That can happen. But in reality, language is commanding whenever it calls something into being by putting the personal honor of the speaker fully at stake. If people like Hitler were the only consequence of that, human beings would have been doomed long ago. Affirmatively commanding language is a tall order, but the degree of challenge involved is not an adequate explanation for its absence from politics in Europe. Where are today’s de Gaulles and Churchills? The problem is the particular kinds of people who have grown into Europe’s leadership class. They’re not wired for it, or they don’t believe they are. And they surely haven’t been trained for it.

Sarkozy is far from perfect, but he has come closer to making authoritatively commanding declarations than any current European leader (save Pope Benedict XVI). And the pope, of course, isn’t a political figure. It’s not at all clear that Sarkozy has a second act in him, and he has no clear successor. The likely result is a boring place holder, one of a growing number in Europe.

4. Kicks for America while it’s down. The United States needs France. Yes, that sounds like a joke, but France is the only country capable of leading Europe politically. However close a relationship with Germany that the United States requires, once beyond the realm of economic survival, the point of diminishing returns is quickly reached. Simply put, the United States cannot do anything of political consequence solely through a partnership with Germany. But with a real, live European-style socialist in Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama will face a Hobson’s choice: work closely with Hollande and incur the wrath of Republicans, or distance himself from Hollande and squander yet another opportunity to ensure that Europe’s future is as fully as possible in the hands of its greatest power.

In a grim irony, Hollande’s intransigence on the oil reserve issue has the potential to make Obama appear impotent even in his relations with a European socialist. How could Obama tell the American people that he can’t get them relief at the pump because a newly elected, cheese-eating surrender monkey won’t let him coordinate his energy policy with the international community? Absurd situations like these are the electorally fatal stuff of legend — and perfect ammunition for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose critical narrative of Obama is already, despite grains of important truths, so spectacularly absurd.

The bigger picture, however, is that American life is made substantially more difficult by Hollande’s inevitable and foreshadowed refusal to lead Europe and make Europe a leading force in the world. The political inspiration that only France can provide Europe will have to be played once again by a United States that is historically tired of playing that role. A U.S. Treasury spokesperson has already declared that the United States has no intention of supplying more money to the IMF to substitute for an adequate eurozone firewall. America’s traditional desire not to squander its energies on managing European problems is poised to return with full force, and not just within a single major political party. A weak France led by a colorless holdover from a defunct past is not just bad news for France, no matter how frustrated voters have become with Sarkozy. It’s awful news for the United States and for any U.S. president obliged to figure out how to help Europe out of its current morass by doing anything other than writing checks.

5. The triumph of inwardness. During his time in office, Sarkozy almost single-handedly kept Europe in the game of international politics, from Africa to the Middle East to Iran. If he is gone, European interventionism will go with him. It is only a matter of how long it will take. Sarkozy has reintegrated France into a NATO actively diminishing its obligations. Hollande, with roughly zero diplomatic experience, vows he’ll pull France from Afghanistan this year. He will bring to France an inwardness that is dominating the rest of Europe — for the first time ever.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. After gallivanting around Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte chose to create a brief but striking moment of European inwardness — selling off Louisiana to the Americans and expending military effort outside Europe only upon rebellious Haiti. Napoleon’s interest in an inward turn for Europe (yes, including Russia) was only a means to an end. What Napoleon wanted to accomplish was the political unification of Europe. Today’s inward-turning Europeans seem to want no such thing. They have no taste for grandeur and no sense of what empire could mean in the absence of colonial exploitation. As a consequence, their version of a politically inward-looking Europe will be a weak Europe, whereas a politically inward-looking United States has not been so and is still not fated to be.

Sarkozy has been irresistible in his way, if not always an irresistible force. Whatever his electoral fortune may be, his appreciation for projecting French power outward was too committed to a misbegotten vision of France as a world power. What matters most as a counterforce against a weak, self-defeating European inwardness is that France be a European power — committed to projecting its ideals and its energy outward across the continent, not across the globe. Sarkozy’s failure here will likely persist to defeat the efforts of his center-right successors, if they choose to labor at a French interventionism that neglects the possibility of shaping Europe first and foremost.

Europeans and Americans should worry about this sort of defeat, too — even if currently the majority of the French don’t seem to. By the time a French leader comes to the fore capable of learning from these mistakes, the follies of Hollande and his more extreme opponents may have ensured an irreversible European tragedy.

James Poulos is a writer in Los Angeles.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.