Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Why Sarkozy Breaks Taboos, Or: How to Understand Bush

Below is my second post on the Harvard International Review's blog...


Politicians are painfully – some even paranoically – aware that one wrong move, however small, can lastingly impact on their careers. Just think of George Bush Sr., who glanced at his watch once too often during one of the Presidential debates against Bill Clinton; or Howard Dean, whose 2004 run for President faltered in no small part because of the infamous “Dean Scream”.

Of all the political taboos that could ruin a politician’s career, however, it is those involving children or cuddly animals which are the most dangerous.

Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachussets and a Republican candidate for President, was rudely reminded of this when tales of a 1983 family holiday resurfaced recently. Some twenty-four years ago, he put Seamus, his Irish setter, into a dog carrier on the roof of his station wagon for a 12-hour trip to Ontario – and has had to reassure upset dog-lovers that “my dog loves fresh air” ever since.

On to children. In the UK, a somewhat more substantial decision was to haunt Margaret Thatcher’s political career. As a young government minister responsible for education, Margaret Thatcher, in 1971, scrapped the provision of free milk to school students over the age of 7. Until today, most British children continue to associate her with a neat little nursery rhyme: “Thatcher, Thatcher. Milk snatcher!”

But the realm of taboo includes not only the hidden political minefields which everyone tries to avoid. More important still are the instances of rhetorical defiance of orthodoxy, when politicians consciously choose a controversial policy. For then the breaking of a taboo must be understood as a symbolic battle cry, not merely an ill-considered mistake. It thus points to moments of decision for the larger political culture, at which politicians either defend a time-honoured ideal against the moment’s winds of political change; or try to shift a policy paradigm.

The former is the case with President Bush’s recent decision to veto a bill which would have provided state-sponsored health care to approximately three and a half million additional children. Bush obviously knew this to be controversial – there are few things which are as blatantly unpopular as denying poor, sick children a doctor (except, possibly, snatching their milk). But apparently he judged a last-ditch attempt to defend America’s traditional skepticism towards state-provided health care against the rising appeal of some form of universal health insurance to be more important than short-term popularity (or his party’s electoral prospects at the 2008 elections).

The latter is true of French government plans to require foreigners who qualify to immigrate into France because of family ties to prove by a DNA test that they really are related. The measure, which passed its last parliamentary hurdle yesterday, has kickstarted the first big opposition movement of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency – embracing not only his traditional political opponents, but also Francois Bayrou, a centrist, and Dominique de Villepin, the Conservatives’ last prime minister. Their worry: by linking immigration and genetics, the law would change the notion of French citizenship. No longer welcoming to anyone who subscribes to French Republican ideals, it would become a closed, implicitly even ethnocentric, concept.

Sarkozy is undoubtedly a shrewd politician. He has also proved more capable than to use bipartisanship for strategic goals than expected. Foremost amongst these seemed to be weakening the reform wing of the Partie Socialiste, the main opposition party – which is still reeling from the quasi-defection of two crucial figureheads, Bernard Kouchner to the foreign ministry and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the head of the IMF. So why did a President who has surprised his opponents by orchestrating these bipartisan moves now push ahead with as taboo-breaking a policy as this?

The answer may be more simple than expected and it is bound up with yet another taboo. Sarkozy is hoping to reform pension benefits for state employees – potentially a huge cut to government expenditure, but raising the possibility of protracted strikes, which could paralyse his government as well as the economy. The first day of the strike, which will cripple not only the Paris Métro, but also – and more importantly, according to many – their beloved Paris Opera and Comédie Francaise, is scheduled to start this Thursday.

One way to see these issues is on the left-right spectrum, where opposition to the DNA measure and opposition to his economic reforms is largely correlated. A better way may be to look at the affected socio-economic groups. Et voila: among the working-class and lower middle-class Frenchmen most affected by Sarkozy’s economic cuts xenophobia is particularly rife. By picking his fight on DNA, then, Sarkozy is hoping to create cross-cutting constituencies, shoring up support for his iconoclastic politics among groups of the population who are likely to suffer from the very same willingness to break taboos in the near future.

Can President Bush’s decision to veto the children’s health bill be credited with a similarly subtle plan? Perhaps not. But whether consciously or not, the deliberate breaking of a political taboo signals a kind of endgame, a clash of ideological titans. Sarkozy may have his economic agenda in mind when he signs off on the DNA measure, but if his law becomes reality, immigrants to France – and France’s political culture – will suffer from the effects for decades. Bush’s bunker may at this stage have lost sight of everyone other than the few true-believers who still surround him; but if, against the odds, he manages to win the fight on state-sponsored insurance for children, he may just have managed to bolster America’s time-honored opposition to universal health care enough to torpedo its introduction even if a Democrat becomes President.

When politicians choose to break political taboos, the public’s first reaction is anger or indignation. This, however, is part and parcel of the taboo breakers’ strategy. Only by understanding their motives and goals can the public oppose not only the particular measure in question but also make sure that policy paradigms do not shift as a long-term result. Otherwise, an angry public will achieve a Pyrrhic victory, winning the battle of the day and yet loosing the cultural war which lurks behind the headlines.

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