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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Sarko the American

    Eric Reichenbacher columnist
    Eric Reichenbacher
    columnist

    Geologists are unanimous in their assertion that the rift between North America and Europe is expanding with the divergence of the Earth’s crust at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Political scientists, however, may be justified in their disagreement.

    Exactly six months ago, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as the 23rd president of the French Republic. In his short time at the Élysée he has singlehandedly counteracted continental drift, employing political plate tectonics to nudge France closer to America – internationally, domestically and all for the better.

    Only four years ago, Franco-American relations were at their coolest. Verbal warning shots volleyed across the Atlantic as then-president Jacques Chirac spearheaded a movement against America’s bellicose unilateralism and “”hyper-power”” tendencies in the run-up to the Iraq War. Local governments in France even passed laws prohibiting l’américanisation of their beloved language. The U.S. Congress retaliated by officially changing the menus at congressional eateries – putting the “”Freedom”” back into French fries. It was on.

    The frigid waters have warmed since Sarkozy’s election. The new president leads and talks more like a Yankee than a Frenchman. In the foreign policy realm, Sarkozy has opined that abruptly removing U.S. troops from Iraq would “”lead to chaos”” – a position very different from that of his predecessor.

    And just last week, Sarkozy received an unprecedented standing ovation from Congress after days of touting his amenable support of U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Iran. He is indeed living up to the very un-French moniker given by his countrymen: “”Sarko the American.””

    This rejuvenated Atlanticism is long overdue. In modern times, Americans revile the French as a bunch of ungrateful sissies who would be speaking German right now if it weren’t for U.S. bravery in World War II. The French, in return, turn their noses up at our laughably unrefined tastes and undiplomatic heavy-handedness on the world stage. Unfortunately, our collective memory doesn’t stretch very far back. Everyone knows the storied sacrifices of American lives at Omaha Beach, but who remembers the integral role of the French in our own war for independence? We could be having tea and crumpets and playing cricket! It’s about time a Sarkozy came along to remind us.

    It is undeniable that France will gain international bargaining power by coming around to the American stance in international affairs. This week, however, it seems that the president’s compatriots are loath to accept him “”acting American”” on the home front. Sarkozy’s proposal to reform the pensions of France’s public transport employees led to nationwide strikes. Millions had to make the trek to work by foot yesterday as less than 20 percent of French buses and trains were in operation. This is unfortunate. Such America-inspired reforms are exactly what the French economy needs.

    Many Americans turn green with envy when they hear the luxurious benefits lavished on French workers. “”So you’re telling me they work 35 hours a week, get five weeks of paid vacation and retire early with full benefits, while we’re slaving away from nine to five?”” Yes, but the rosy faÇõade of this social contract belies its nasty effects on society. These entitlements are great, if you are lucky enough to have a job. Sadly, one in 10 would-be workers is unemployed – the highest rate in Western Europe and twice that of the U.S.

    The rigid labor policies and the astronomical tax rates that provide workers with their benefits also prohibit many from ever finding a job. French companies must pay exorbitant cotisations, or social taxes, for each worker, as well as hefty severance packages for those they let go. This puts prohibitive burdens on employers that want to expand and hire new, better workers. It is estimated that 70 percent of businesses close after their first year. This has led to a strict polarization of French society – dividing those who can’t be fired and those who can’t be hired.

    The disaffected masses of the latter group, mostly recent immigrants from North Africa, live in tightly packed tenement housing at the Paris city limits. Some of these banliueues boast unemployment rates as high as 40 percent. Two years ago, this highly-combustible situation erupted, as thousands of unemployed youth rioted for three weeks straight, torching cars and wrecking 200 million Euros worth of havoc. Taking a page from the Reagan and Thatcher books, Sarkozy bravely proposes the tough pill of liberalization, long a political taboo in France, to close the yawning opportunity gap. His plans would hurt workers accustomed to their entitlements, but the long-term social benefits of opening opportunities to the have-nots far outweighs this temporary pain.

    It would behoove both the Americans and the French to support the “”American Touch”” that has defined Sarkozy’s external and internal policy decisions. We may never again have the chance to work with a French leader who makes statements like, “”I love the value Americans place on work.”” The benefits of this relationship could even entice other stand-offish foreign leaders to warm up to our values and friendship. With American allies dwindling, this historic partnership could not be timelier. We truly have a bon ami in Sarkozy.

    Eric Reichenbacher is a senior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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