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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Testimony

Determined to bring major changes to French politics and society, President Nicolas Sarkozy does not seem to be at all concerned with maintaining a politically correct image for himself in the process. In fact, a big part of the man’s image and charm centers around his willingness to rock the boat any time that helps him achieve his goals. And, much to the dismay of his countrymen, one of the least politically correct things that Sarkozy has done since taking office is to express his admiration for America and many of the things for which this country stands. That alone makes him more of a “maverick” in France than John McCain could ever hope to be in this country.

Testimony is both a detailed explanation of the goals Sarkozy hopes to achieve during his presidency and a description of the societal and political problems that he recognized on his first day in office. Many of Sarkozy’s observations about what has caused the French economy and lifestyle to fall behind those of so many other European countries will be of particular interest to American readers who worry about the direction in which this country appears to be heading.

Sarkozy is particularly concerned with the jealous criticism directed at so many of France’s most successful citizens and the prevalent desire to “level things out” in a manner that would allow everyone to share the country’s wealth. As he puts it, “Instead of mobilizing society through those who have succeeded the most, the French prefer to stoke up resentment of those who have more than others, on the assumption that they must have stolen what they have from others!” Any society has a big problem when its biggest “achievers” are seen as targets to be destroyed by those who underachieve in their own lives, an attitude that Sarkozy recognizes in France and one which seems to be more common in America now than ever before.

Regarding his country’s tendency to overtax its richest citizens, Sarkozy makes the observation that other countries benefit greatly from the policy because so many of France’s best minds and most ambitious people choose to relocate to countries with more reasonable tax laws. “Equality should mean not that we all become poor, but rather that we can all hope to become rich or at least ensure social advancement for our families” is a Sarkozy point that seems to be as misunderstood today in America as it is in France. As Sarkozy goes on to say, “…the main consequence of preventing the most dynamic members of society from getting rich is to make everyone else poor. By trying to ensure equality for everyone you end up penalizing everyone.”

President Sarkozy is not afraid to point out the French superiority complex, something that is apparently obvious to everyone other than the French themselves, and how counterproductive that attitude is when dealing with citizens of other countries, including those of Europe. As he correctly says, “By living off our past, by believing that we can get away with anything because we’re France, by thinking that we don’t have to try as hard as the others do, we are losing influence,” something else, I would suggest, for American readers to keep in mind about our own attitudes.

France, as does most of the rest of Europe, has a social welfare system of significantly greater scope than the United States but Sarkozy believes that the system has become more a detriment to, than an advantage for, his country. He makes the common sense observation that, “The French are not afraid of work. But the deliberate inversion of values between work and welfare has caused people to lose their bearings. When someone who works doesn’t live any better than someone who doesn’t work, why should the one working get up early in the morning?” We are fast approaching the same point in America, I believe, and should learn from the experience of countries like France that got there before us.

With the emergence of Nicolas Sarkozy, America seems to have more in common with the leadership of France now than it has since the end of World War II. Even Sarkozy himself seems to feel that way when he says, “I would like to put special emphasis on our relations with the United States. Our situation is unique. The United States is a country that some of France’s elites claim to detest, or at least criticize regularly and in a stereotypical way. This is rather strange for a number of reasons. The United States is a country that France has never been to war against, and there aren’t so many of those…and I have no intention of apologizing for feeling an affinity with the greatest democracy in the world.”

And, finally, near the end of Testimony, Sarkozy almost seems to be speaking directly to his American readers when he observes, “Democracy dies away when there is no longer any difference between the majority and the opposition, when the left and the right are no longer faithful to their values, and when no one is willing to stand and fight for the policies for which he or she was elected. This is no doubt one of the main causes of the current crisis of politics.” And it explains so much of what has happened to the United States in the last two decades, a period during which the merger of our own two main political parties has moved ever nearer.

Testimony is one of the best political memoirs that I have read in the last several years. It explains much about France and one man’s hopes for reviving his country, but just as importantly, the book serves as a warning to the citizens of this country that they do not want to continue to drift toward a lifestyle and political outlook that is eerily becoming more European every day.

Rated at: 4.0

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