American right wingers, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, fell in love with France last month. They got excited because the voters of France turned to the right in May and elected Nicolas Sarkozy as their new president. Sarkozy, an urbane secularist who has appointed a leading socialist and one of the world’s top human rights advocates to his Cabinet, is hardly an American-style yahoo conservative.
But Sarkozy has proposed serious assaults on France’s social-welfare commitments, and that excited Gingrich and his circle – so much so that the potential Republican presidential contender has recently been writing columns with headlines like "A French Lesson for Republicans."
"I know this will seem strange to those of us who like to make jokes about the French, but the fact is that there is a great deal to be learned from the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy (a member of the ruling party) in last weekend’s "change" election in France — and Republicans had better learn it," Gingrich was busy telling his fellow partisans in May.
What Gingrich loved about Sarkozy’s win was the fact that a conservative "reformer" replaced a status-quo conservative, former President Jacques Chirac. To his view, it held out the promise that an American conservative reformer who was willing to criticize George Bush – say, um, Newt Gingrich – might be able to hold the presidency in 2008.
Gingrich was especially enthusiastic about predictions that Sarkozy’s "blue wave" was going to sweep over France in this month’s parliamentary elections.
But as the French have gotten to know more about Sarkozy’s plans for domestic reform, they have grown less excited about surfing that blue wave.
Going into Sunday’s second round of elections for the French parliament, it was predicted that Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) would dramatically improve its position – giving the new president a blank check to battle with unions, university professors, elderly retirees and pregnant moms to cut their benefits. It made political sense, Sarkozy was getting a friendly response from the French media and the opposition Socialist Party was in disarray – with its defeated presidential candidate Segolene Royal sniping publicly at its chairman, Francois Hollande, her longtime but apparently now former romantic partner.
Instead, the UMP lost 45 seats, while the Socialists gained 36 seats and the Communist Party, which had been predicted to collapse, held onto at least 15 seats.
One of Sarkozy’s top Cabinet picks, former prime minister Alain Juppe, was defeated by a Socialist and had to resign his position, while a number of the president’s allies and aides lost.
"The Right Wing Takes a Left Hook," declared the left-leaning Paris daily newspaper Liberation on Monday, which reported that, "Voters refused to give the party of Nicolas Sarkozy the blank check it demanded."
Though his position is weaker than that of his conservative predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy will still have a parliamentary majority. He promises to go forward with his conservative reforms, and he’ll undoubtedly succeed on some fronts.
But Sarkozy’s demand for a broad mandate has been met with what the conservative business daily newspaper Tribune was met with a "first warning to the president."
Will Newt Gingrich get the warning? Unlikely. American conservatives are desperately seeking heroes these days. So desperately that they are looking in increasingly unlikely places – on the set of the television show "Law and Order," in France, even in the reject bin to which Gingrich was consigned. Gingrich and others will keep pointing to Sarkozy as an example of what they hope for: the prospect that that the failed Bush presidency can be replaced by another conservative presidency.
The facts from France suggest that circumstances are more nuaced. Sarkozy, both by his own savvy choices and by the choices of the French people, will not play the role Gingrich and other American right wingers would like him to fill. And those American conservatives who have aided and abetted George Bush’s presidency will have a much harder time refashioning themselves than their French counterparts.
John Nichols’ new book is