I was asked to write about the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the recent French presidential election. Not knowing too much about French politics, I was hesitant, and therefore decided to read Monsieur Sarkozy's recent book Testimony: France in the Twenty-First Century (en anglais). For someone who is not well versed in French politics, it is a bit dangerous to get my information from this type of source. If Sarkozy has any competence as a politician, which he certainly does, this book should convince me that he is France's noblest son and greatest hope. Yet as an American, I am somewhat familiar with this genre of writing—the politician's self-promotional book that proves his ideas are more than slogans. Likewise, in this case, I am less sensitive to Sarkozy's patriotic musings. Obama makes me weepy when he talks about baseball and civil rights. Sankozy has no such access to my emotions. Hopefully, this ill-informed objectivity will make my thoughts on the subject worthwhile.
As a Muslim, I am troubled by the status of my co-religionists in France. The 2005 riots in the Paris banlieues and elsewhere illustrate the deep frustration felt by immigrant communities. As Interior Minister, Sarkozy's reaction to the riots was criticized by many as brutal and even racist. At a wider level, I also wonder whether France has really atoned for its brutal colonial past, much of which involved the Muslim world. Does its current relationship with Algeria and Tunisia, for instance, really reflect a commitment to liberty and human rights? And of course there is the banning of hijab in French schools, a truly disgraceful policy for a nation that claims to protect individual freedom. In addition to the “Muslim issues,” it is also useful to consider Sarkozy in a broader context. What sort of political trend does he represent? What is his grand vision of government? How does he perceive the United States and his European neighbors? These are all important questions.
As a first impression, Sarkozy appears as one of the rare individuals who can rise above petty politics and provide true leadership. And of course, this is exactly the message he intends to convey. His promises of straight talk and honesty are reminiscent of John McCain. He raises the banner of “hope” like Barack Obama. The big disclaimer, of course, is that I don't really know what lies behind Sarkozy. What does he actually represent? He acknowledges the importance of building upon one's political base, but what exactly does that mean in France? The readers of this post are invited to enlighten me.
It is clear that Sarkozy wishes to push France in a fiscally conservative direction. That said, even if he succeeded on every front, France would still retain a much stronger “social safety net” than anything we have ever seen in America. Sarkozy wants to cut the fat from social programs, to promote work instead of dependence, and to remove barriers to entrepreneurship and personal ambition. One of his most controversial proposals—to lengthen the state-mandated 35-hour work-week—strikes an American as comical. Most Americans will not feel much pity if the French have to work 40 hours or more per week. Although Sarkozy represents the right-wing of French politics, his fiscal plans appear quite moderate (even wise) from this side of the Atlantic.
Sarkozy believes in active, aggressive policy-making and chastises his colleagues for deeming some challenges as beyond political control. He favors a creative engagement and strategic embrace of globalization, focusing on key French industries that can compete internationally. As former Interior Minister, Sarkozy has built a reputation for toughness on crime. He boasts of cracking down on sex offenders, a move most reasonable people would applaud. His approach to crime also includes efforts to curb immigration and the aforementioned riot suppression in 2005.
As an American, I cannot help but agree with Sarkozy's effort to jump start the French economy and dismantle, or at least revitalize, the burdensome socialist bureaucracy built up over decades. These are policies that impact Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and therefore deserve our attention. Nevertheless, they are not my primary concern.When Sarkozy was elected, I heard three major concerns voiced by fellow Muslims—his strong support for Israel, his opposition to Turkey joining the European Union, and his overall policies toward French Muslims and Muslim immigrants. Concerning the first issue, Sarkozy does indeed offer unambiguous words of support for Israel. Yet he also refers to the “non-negotiable right of Palestinians to have an independent state.” He condemns Hizbullah for instigating the tragic war of summer, 2006, but also cautions Israel on its disproportionate response. Sarkozy seems well within the mainstream of international politics on this issue.
Sarkozy unapologetically asserts that Turkey is not part of Europe, and considers its majority Muslim population to be inconsistent with European identity. This is troubling, though personally I'm not sure why Turkey wants to join the European Union, or whether such a move would ultimately serve Islam. Again, readers are invited to enlighten me. In reference to foreign policy, it is also worth noting that Sarkozy voices open concern for the “tragedy in Chechnya” and opposes much of U.S. policy in Iraq.
My greatest concern with Sarkozy is his approach to French Muslims and Muslim immigrants. Just as we view Sarkozy's economic plans against the backdrop of the French social safety net, we also must examine his domestic policies in the context of shameless nationalism and cultural bigotry. My understanding of French society is that the right and left are equally hostile to Muslims. As I was preparing this article, I met a French professor who viewed Sarkozy's election as the downfall of France. She assured me that the rich would get richer, and that Sarkozy would cozy up to Bush. Personally, I think Sarkozy is too shrewd to court a discredited American president who is eagerly being shown the door. He certainly will reach out to whoever is elected in 2008. But as a Muslim, I cannot accept the knee-jerk French leftist reaction to Sarkozy's election. Based on his writing (again with all necessary disclaimers), I do not consider him the ideal leader, but he may offer more promise to the Muslim community than any alternative.
Sarkozy favors the integration of all ethnic and religious groups as full citizens of the French Republic. As part of this agenda, he advocates a culturally appropriate affirmative action program to promote social mobility for Arabs, Africans, and other immigrant communities. He praises the success of affirmative action in the United States, a view that progressive Americans would certainly welcome. Sarkozy has at times engaged the Muslim community in France, and supported establishing the French Council of the Muslim Religion. I was also interested to know that Sarkozy opposed banning the hijab in French schools. Despite his personal distaste for the hijab, he once condemned the legal ban as “secular fundamentalism.” And as part of his vision for a new France, Sarkozy states, “in this country, individuals will be entitled to hold their beliefs and to practice religion without being labeled bigots or terrorists.” This all seems to bode well for Muslims.
The major question for French Muslims, and Muslims in the West, is to maintain our beliefs and practices while contributing fully to the wider society. Neither isolation nor assimilation is an acceptable option. The situation in the banlieues is unacceptable and unsustainable. Sarkozy recognizes this. However, French Muslims cannot be expected to drink wine, wear mini-skirts, and eat pork along with their non-Muslim compatriots.
As I mentioned earlier, my primary source for this article is Sarkozy's book. In a previous post, I challenged American Muslims to look beyond political rhetoric, to understand the deeper interests and forces that politicians truly represent. If I need a taste of my own medicine, I welcome your prescriptions.