Lost luggage

May 09, 2007

Republicans in this country are trying to take some satisfaction from the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential elections, not only because he is a conservative but also because he is a conservative who managed to campaign as a fresh face at the end of the two terms in office of his fellow conservative, the enormously unpopular Jacques Chirac. The Republicans hope they can pull the same trick in 2008.

Old wine in new bottles? Not really. The voters want change - not only in France but in Britain and America, too. It's just that change in politics sometimes has less to do with ideology than with personality.

Mr. Sarkozy is Chirac-like in being the sort of conservative who opposes the war in Iraq; his first public statement after winning the election was to criticize the United States over global warming.

But, as he pointed out, friends can differ - and he seems genuinely disposed toward friendship with what the French irritatingly call the "Anglo-Saxon" world. His main issue, the one that got him elected, was the stagnant state of the French economy, and on this he turns out to be an admirer of the free-market state of mind that rules in New York and London.

He also subscribes to the Lou Dobbs theory of immigration - except that instead of lamenting the inflow of Mexicans, he takes it out on the North African Muslims living outside the major French cities.

All in all, he acted as though he was entirely unburdened by Mr. Chirac's baggage, and the French enthusiastically thrust him into office.

So now Europe has a fresh face on the right, joining Germany's Angela Merkel. This means that the prospects of a European Union constitution - already rejected once by the French - are even dimmer, and that Turkey is now up against stiffer opposition in its effort to be admitted, someday, to that same constitution-free body of nations.

Across the English Channel, Gordon Brown is about to take over as prime minister from Tony Blair, and would dearly love to portray himself as a fresh face on the left. But Mr. Blair is no more popular than Mr. Chirac, and his baggage is a good deal more cumbersome. Mr. Brown is a Scot, but his Labor Party just lost regional elections in Scotland to a party that wants independence - and Labor without Scotland is not a party that can rule Britain for long. The prickliness of the Scots could consign England to the rightward drift of European politics, once parliamentary elections are called.

Is there a lesson for Republicans and Democrats in this? Yes, an easy one - voters want a break with the past, because the last decade or so hasn't been a pleasant one. The party that offers the best chance for something new wins.

And here's a harder lesson: Friends can differ, but they can still be friends. Republicans might even learn to like french fries again.

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