Women’s vote in France seals a new tie to U.S.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

Ni­co­las Sarkozy talks about “new cleav­ages” in France, but he’s not talk­ing about Parisian decol­letage. The man France elected pres­i­dent is talk­ing mere pol­i­tics, about the “so­cial cleav­ages” be­tween the left, de­mand­ing more gov­ern­ment largesse and rigid laws man­dat­ing lazi­ness, and the right, rail­ing against the 35-hour work week as de­valu­ing merit and un­der­cut­ting com­pet­i­tive­ness in a hard new world of mar­ket economies.

Mr. Sarkozy se­duced enough of the women of France to run his ma­jor­ity to 53 per­cent. When his So­cial­ist op­po­nent, Se­go­lene Royal, cam­paigned as a fem­i­nist and worked on her im­age as a “mother” who would be the first fe­male pres­i­dent, the French me­dia swooned. So did the in­tel­lec­tual class, but no­body else bought the fem­i­nist-first mys­tique. Like women in Amer­ica, the women of France voted for the can­di­date they thought would be the most com­pe­tent leader. A wo­man is a wo­man, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make her the best pres­i­dent.

“We do not want a pres­i­dent who changes her ideas as of­ten as she changes her skirts,” hissed Michele Al­liot-Marie, the con­ser­va­tive de­fense min­is­ter. Miss Royal’s per­ceived su­per­fi­cial­ity was de­rided by an­other fe­male com­men­ta­tor who called her the “Emma Bo­vary of pol­i­tics,” repris­ing Flaubert’s novel about a bored house­wife who seeks ex­cite­ment in a world she doesn’t un­der­stand. What Miss Royal needed was Cyrano de Berg­erac to give her words power if not po­etry. She never found the an­swer to the fa­mous ques­tion posed by Freud: “What do women want?” The Royal de­feat ought to be cau­tion­ary for Sen. Hil­lary Clin­ton. Women, like cats, are not eas­ily herded. They don’t nec­es­sar­ily, or even usu­ally, vote as a bloc. Most women in France, like most men in France, try to bal­ance a sat­is­fy­ing home life with a suc­cess­ful work life and un­der­stand that rigid lim­its on the work­week re­tard their abil­ity to tai­lor work to the dif­fer­ent stages in their lives. One size does not fit all.

“When you’re young, you’re ready to work like crazy to start a fam­ily, buy a house, and get your ca­reer off the ground,” Mr. Sarkozy says. “Those who want to earn more want the free­dom to work more.” That’s a tough sell in France, con­sid­er­ably tougher there than here. When France en- acted a law en­abling em­ploy­ers to dis­miss work­ers un­der 26 who, af­ter two years in the job demon­strate that they can’t do sat­is­fac­tory work, col­lege stu­dents protested as if they were de­nied their birthright. They re­garded as that birthright mov­ing from ma mere l’Oye, or Mother Goose, to ma mere l’Etat, the goose of state re­spon­si­ble for lay­ing the golden egg. They wanted to eat their eclair and keep it, too.

Mr. Sarkozy prefers the Amer­i­can model. French So­cial­ists, he says, look on work as pun­ish­ment, some­thing ev­ery­one should try to es­cape. “Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, on the other hand, un­der­stands that work well done is lib­er­at­ing.” He de- fends not only the work ethic, but how the re­wards of that ethic are dis­trib­uted: “What could be more just than to en­sure that those who work hard­est and make the ex­tra ef­fort are able to earn more money and climb higher in so­ci­ety?” The cleav­age Mr. Sarkozy de­cries in­cludes the deep chasm be­tween the United States and France. Not since Lafayette and Rocham­beau saved Wash­ing­ton at York­town have the two coun­tries ex­pressed au­then­tic af­fec­tion for one an­other. The Amer­i­can as­cen­dancy in world af­fairs co­in­cided with the French de­cline, and jeal­ousy, as Richard Ch­es­noff re­minds us in “The Ar­ro­gance of the French,” de­stroys affin­ity.

Yves Mon­tand com­pares Amer­ica to “the worst kind of beau­ti­ful wo­man; a pow­er­ful wo­man that we de­sire but feel un­wor­thy of, and whom we must there­fore de­grade.” Rec­on­cil­i­a­tions have been spo­radic and brief. The French loved the Amer­i­cans who lib­er­ated Paris in 1944, but mem­o­ries fade and af­fec­tion sours when grat­i­tude turns to re­sent­ment. When Charles de Gaulle de­manded that the United States take its NATO sol­diers out of France, Dean Rusk, Lyn­don John­son’s sec­re­tary of state, asked with blunt elo­quence: “Should we dig up our dead in Nor­mandy and take them home, too?” The Paris news­pa­per Le Monde, in a fit of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion af­ter Septem­ber 11, re­marked that “We are all Amer­i­cans now.” The sen­ti­ment waned when Amer­ica went to war against Sad­dam Hus­sein.

“What­ever our dis­agree­ments, France and the United States share the same val­ues: free­dom of speech, thought and faith; equal­ity be­tween men and women; and love of life,” writes Ni­co­las Sarkozy in his book, “Tes­ti­mony,” which be­came his cam­paign man­i­festo. “We will pre­vail if we stand to­gether.” Kiss­ing can be nice, but it takes more than a kiss in the heat of a mo­ment to rec­on­cile.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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