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French Lessons

It’s a fair question: Does it matter who is elected president of France—to France, let alone to the rest of the world? It matters probably more than the American press, which has more or less ignored the contest, lets on: The American press isn’t anywhere near the measure of all things consequential. Au contraire. What Americans pay attention to is usually in direct proportion to what matters less, if not least, to the rest of the world (the week Imus was making all the covers, including that of Time, Time’s European edition featured a cover story on Zimbabwe: that about sums it up). But the French election also matters probably less than the French press let on, because the French public, or rather the French establishment, wouldn’t let it matter so much: when everything is cast and done, nothing much will have changed in France over the next five years, because not too much needs to change. And that’s not too bad a thing. For America, there’s more to learn from France than to unlearn, or reject. “ France,” Hans Koening wrote in The Atlantic in 1995, “makes a good touchstone for America's future policies.” But standard operating procedure for Americans is to belittle anything French. Our loss.

For all its perceived troubles, France isn’t a nation on the brink. Its suburbs have their problems. Integration isn’t a French strength, nor a European one. But for all their violence, the suburbs have never been as violent as the average riot in American cities. For all their “juvenile crime” they’ve never been as dangerous as their inner counterparts in American cities (France’s current fear of juvenile crime reminds one of American commentators’ panic, in the mid-1980s, over the “time bomb” of juvenile crime, which never exploded, although a construction boom favoring juvenile prisons did). It’s worth remembering once in a while too that France’s best-care-anywhere slogan isn’t a myth: socialized medicine there works. It may be a little expensive for the state as a whole, but it’s never crippling to individuals, as it so often is in the United States, where the formula is reversed: it’s cheap for the state, crippling for individuals. Which would you rather have? Which does a civilized society call for?

And if it’s economic strength one’s worried about, let’s remember that French workers, despite their 35-hour week, are still more productive, hour-per-hour, than their American counterparts. So in exchange for slower economic growth (2.1 percent at last count, which isn’t all that slow in a modern economy), France provides a more livable economy, too. “Yes,” Craig Smith writes in the Times on Sunday, “life is expensive: a web of protectionist regulations has kept a lid on the ability to save money at discount stores and restaurant chains. But that has also kept neighborhood bistros and bakers and cheese shops and charcuteries in business far longer than in most other developed economies, creating a rich fabric of daily life that everyone loves. It is one reason France draws more tourists than any other country each year.” And one reason why the Wal-Mart mentality hasn’t taken hold there. Even if either Sarkozy or Royal had the will to make good on ambitious agendas, they’d have been limited in their accomplishments by an overly self-satisfied establishment, and a reality less dire than the demagoguery of political campaigns make it appear.

Foreigners, immigrants, Muslims—those segments of society that precisely are not on the whole part of the France described above—are a different matter, the signal difference where a Sarkozy presidency may do more harm than good, because in those regards, Nicholas Sarkozy, Mopnsieur Zero Tolérance, wants to be France’s Rudy Giuliani. Sarkozy wasn’t being dishonest when he said, shortly after being elected the next president: “To all those French who did not vote for me, I want to say that beyond political battles, beyond differences of opinion, for me there is only one France.” (Reuters’ translation truncated Sarkozy’s full thought: "Par-delà le combat poitique, par-delà les divergences d'opinion, il n'y a pour moi qu'une seule France. Ce n'est pas victoire d'une France contre une autre. Il n'y a qu'une seule victoire, celle de la démocratie.") But Sarkozy’s idea of one nation smells of conditions and litmus tests. You’re part of France if you toe the line the French (the Sarkozy) way. You’re part of France if you like the idea of a “ministry of immigration and national identity” that will inculcate Frenchness into you. You’re part of France as long as you buy into the notion of la belle et douce France , of a traditional France that exists only in mythology.

It isn’t tradition immigrants are lacking. It’s inclusion. That’s becoming increasingly the case in the United States (as long as the immigrants bear a certain color or hail from certain souths). That’s been the case all along in France, where immigrants of certain colors and from certain souths have always been treated like the country’s guest workers—more workers than guests. How Sarkozy will improve those attitudes after spending the last five years appealing to nativist bigotries and law-and-order chain-jangling is hard to imagine. The most reassuring thing to know about him, and the least reassuring, is that he’s no fool.

There was worry that a Sarkozy presidency would trigger more car burning in the banlieu. It’s early yet, but for now there’s only news of concerts on the Place de la Concorde. Perfect location.

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