“French Kisses,” December 2007
Why does Rudy Giuliani keep kissing up to France’s new president?
For months now, across America, Rudy Giuliani has shown Tom Cruise-like enthusiasm about France. He can’t get enough of his old friend and political soulmate, French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Between shills for Testimony, Sarkozy’s bestselling political memoir, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and effusive praise for his counterpart’s inroads on tax reform–“even in France!”– French-kissing has become an unusual and defining trait of Giuliani’s presidential campaign. Woven into the ex-mayor’s stump speech is an absurd tale of a “recurring dream” in which “socialist” Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are booted to France and pro-business Sarkozy is imported to the U.S. In Sarkozy, Rudy sees an idealized version of himself: Flouting a system built on liberal pieties, he’s tough, conservative, presidential, and dating an ex-model. But Giuliani’s obsession with Sarkozy does more than highlight the surrealism of watching a leader in love: It reveals major fault lines in Rudy’s plan for world leadership.
Similarities between the two politicians have been trumpeted in the press since Sarkozy’s stint as Minister of the Interior, the top cop of France. The pair first met in 2002, when Rudy was flown in to discuss urban crime. Sarkozy, who has also adopted a hyperactive, take-no-prisoners style of governance, has always been generous in his admiration of Giuliani’s work as mayor of New York. When the New York Post ran a cover touting Sarkozy’s May presidential victory with the headline “A French Rudy,” Giuliani proudly brandished it at a speech the same week. And while Hillary Clinton is no Segolène Royal, early comments on the French election results bolstered his case: “A conservative, strong-on-security kind of guy running against a liberal woman. Sound familiar?”
In October, “Sarko L’Americain” gave a mollifying speech to Congress, making peace over Iraq and emphasizing commonalities between America and the French republic. As his own electoral fortunes diminish, Guiliani would surely love to cash in on the resulting Sarkozy swoon. The problem is that Giuliani’s case for himself as the “American Sarko” falls apart under closer inspection.
Upon hearing of Sarkozy’s hard-won budget, for example, which will cut the number of government workers in France by one-third, Giuliani upped the ante, pledging a 50 percent reduction in the American civil service during his presidency. He repeated the promise during a recent Republican debate, advocating “technology” as a vague justification. But the pledge rests on a gross misreading of the American government. In France’s bloated public sector, state employees number more, retire earlier and work less annually than in the U.S.; entitlements reign and efficiency suffers as a result. Sarkozy’s budget dictates such cuts in the name of competitiveness and a new work ethic for an economy whose growth has dawdled for a decade. Giuliani’s plan, on the other hand, has been called a “drive-by shooting,” wherein skilled workers across the board would be sacked to honor the GOP fixation with small government. Perhaps Rudy forgets that his most-favored departments of homeland security and defense account for half the federal payroll. Rather than parroting Sarkozy, a more nuanced strategy for America’s relatively trim civil service would be a precise redistribution of workers, shifting the focus from administration to more front-line support in overworked agencies like FEMA and the INS—a strategy that would make Rudy’s red-meat platitudes about immigration or crisis management sound more credulous.
Of course, the big differences between the politicians can be explained away by time and context. In classically rightist fashion, both working-class politicians espouse accountability and individual responsibility as a civic philosophy. Immigration reform has been a key plank of both presidential platforms. Sarkozy’s often repeated call for the French to “work more to earn more” sounds suspiciously like the “one city, one standard” slogan Giuliani stumped with during his first successful run for mayor. Both men are also leaders who matched a political moment. Like New Yorkers in 1993, a French public fed up with the status quo claims to be ready for “Czarkozy” and his campaign for discipline. His UMP party won June parliamentary elections convincingly, and at the height of chaotic transport strikes in October and November–perhaps by force of French habit–some 8,000 Sarkozy supporters convened a protest against the protests in Paris.
But Sarkozy still faces a serious battle of coalition in France, a fact which spotlights the most profound difference between the two: Sarkozy ran–and is governing–as a change agent, while the unpopular current US administration remains in the very DNA of Rudy’s campaign. As a counterpoint to Giuliani’s insular, obsequious staff in New York City, Sarkozy’s bipartisan cabinet made history with women and Muslims in prominent positions. Sarkozy famously disarmed the socialist opposition through inclusion, appointing PS leader Bernard Kouchner as his prime minister. His push for renewed participation in NATO, and a do-over of the European Union constitution represents a break with France’s contrarian past. Even his controversial recent move to unsubsidize television station France 24 for broadcasting in languages other than French continues the attack on conventional wisdom.
Conversely, Giuliani bears no real consensus for change in America. Running as the intellectual heir to George W. Bush, candidate Giuliani is barnacled with war drummers and aging Reaganauts. In echoes of his stubborn defense of missteps by the NYPD, the “New York Cowboy” exhibits the same bunker mentality that has dogged the Bush administration and congressional Republicans. His team has made sure that criticisms of his tenure in New York do not leave the east coast, and the specter of 9/11 is never far from his lips. Last month in New Hampshire, Giuliani claimed he “never had any doubt” that he, too, would have invaded Iraq. Throughout the campaign, he has demonstrated how out-of-step he is with an American public coming to resemble–gasp–a French one, in its rejection of the Iraq war and embrace of “socialist” initiatives like universal health care. Now, he’s unwittingly invoked Europe’s change candidate, a politician whose “conservative” label obscures what is an aggressively reformist mode of governing. While their avant-garde domestic lives (Sarkozy is now rumored to be on marriage number three) may fuel comparison, even twice-divorced, Sarkozy doesn’t merit the association. As leftist Libération wrote of Sarko’s US visit: “the post-Bush era has already begun.” And who best will meet this moment? Sarkozy, for one, isn’t crushing back–during his busy day in Washington, he made just one unscripted move: He called Hillary Clinton.