A New France, Sixth Republic -- or Sarkostan?

A clear majority, from my silk-tied Parisian pals to olive-farmer neighbors in Provence, are eager to believe in the promise of a new sort of France. Others, however, hear a troubling undercurrent.
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PARIS -- Like every Fifth Republic president elected to rule France, Nicolas Sarkozy is something of a democrat, a demagogue, and a demigod in a nation with all the societal order of cats around tuna. This time, however, plus ca change is out the window.

Charles de Gaulle is finally dead. The Socialists are routed. Communists barely exist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen's hard-right National Front lays crippled in the compost heap of bad ideas whose time has gone.

A clear majority, from my silk-tied Parisian pals to olive-farmer neighbors in Provence, are eager to believe in the promise of a new sort of France. Others, however, hear a troubling undercurrent.

At this early stage, no one yet knows whether to expect an open-spirited and vibrant Sixth Republic -- or a heavy-handed Sarkostan.

Distant pundits attributed Sarkozy's victory to a faltering economy which is causing a passé France to fall behind in a globalized world. In a word, merde. The economy, in fact, is doing fine.

Deeper down, it's as simple as a schoolbook in which you find Victor Hugo's paean: "France, France, without you the world would be alone."

Frenchmen believe that 2,000 years of practice give them a certain expertise in war and peace. They see a Lone Ranger buffoon and an adder-eyed Russian play with fire in a tinder-box world. A European Union reduces the Sun King's legacy to an ingredient of a bland consommé. France wants to matter again.

Surprisingly few I-told-you-so buttheads throw Iraq back at Americans. More common is the rueful reaction of my neighbor, Martin Boyer, who knows and likes the United States: "We tried to tell them, and we got freedom fries."

Sarkozy admires America, finds nice things to say about George W. Bush, and, for God's sake, decorated Barbra Streisand. Unlike Jacques Chirac, he'd slap on a Stetson and yodel if cameras were nearby. But his first words as president left no doubt: France is a friend, not a follower. He says Bush's stand on global warming, for example, puts the world at risk.

In Sarkozy, the French see Louis XIV in jogging shorts, a Napoleon-sized dynamo who earned his chops by counting haricots at the Ministry of Finance.

The Bastille Day parade, a resounding two-hour clash of symbols, swept away any doubts. Sarkozy bounded off his command car to hug the handicapped and mingle with the masses, leaving his security cocoon far behind.

For the first time, European contingents marched down the Champs-Elysees. But they were quickly forgotten as synchronized Mirage jets trailed blue, white, and red smoke over an Old World capital that thrummed with new glory.

Sarkozy's dazzling burst of energy -- with smart high-level appointments, fast action on campaign promises, and diplomatic house calls to European capitals and Algeria -- has confounded his detractors.

He co-opted the Socialist Party's prime movers. His foreign minister is Bernard Kouchner, a left-leaning crowd pleaser who founded Medecins Sans Frontieres after the Biafra war in Nigeria starved so many children.

In his first hours, Sarkozy went after sacred cattle, including government meddling in business and punishing death taxes. He dragged cabinet ministers back from the beach to actually work in July.

He also abolished some lovable quirks that make France so French, like the traditional amnesty of parking tickets. Police are everywhere, with speed cameras and handcuffs and orders to drop their usual tolerance down toward zero. Investigators spent nearly seven hours searching the home of Dominique Villepin, former prime minister and an early rival for the presidency, seeking evidence that he sought to smear Sarkozy with a bribery scandal.

Sarkozy also hit an early wall of major significance. He squared off against powerful unions over their ability to tie France in knots. He wants to assure basic services when transport workers pull their occasional stunt of paralyzing the roads and rails.

France is mostly with the president in this specific case -- but only with reluctance. On a larger plane, the conflict gets to the essence of what a France under Sarkozy might mean to a wider world.

Outsiders see France as a recalcitrant relic that rejects a new economic faith that is making the world prosper. And this misses a crucial point.

Frenchmen are not wild about a ubiquitous term which translates from global NewSpeak as ressources humaines. For most, a human is not an expendable resource, like a drill press or a sack of manure. Everyone here has health care, and universities are free. Few have to survive old age on discount dog food.

The presidential vote was a rejection of social sclerosis and political stagnation. But while France embraces a 21st century, it is not about to forget the earlier 20th. Sarkozy's challenge is to design, in sloganeers' terms, globalization with a human face.

If he pulls it off, we all might learn something.

That won't be easy. Christine Lagarde, the new finance minister who worked for years at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, told the National Assembly: "Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves."

And this, of course, outraged a beloved intellectual class which had already excoriated Sarkozy for jogging. The world may now move at warp speed. But a proper French thinker walks.

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