In the name of “witnessing the modernisation of the higher education institutes of France,” or something to that effect within Tuesday’s presidential agenda, Nicolas Sarkozy was at the University of Strasbourg to overlook the multi-million renovation of its main library and partake in an “exchange” with its students on the economic and political situation in Europe and the conclusions of last week’s G20 summit. Hours after handing his Prime Minister the unenviable task of announcing the latest tranche of austerity measures, effectively all but driving a final nail into his mantra of travailler plus pour gagner plus, and regrettably minutes before revelations of his and Barack Obama’s most intimate thoughts of Binyamin Netanyahu at the Cannes summit emerged, SuperSarko was very much on the campaign trail in Strasbourg and in all probability hoping to push on from his 5-point “Giulia bounce,” if I could put it that way. Hosted at the Ecole de Management, and gathering students from several of the university’s social science institutes, controversy brewed beforehand as selection policy appeared to overwhelmingly favour foreign exchange students including myself, with few if any French people from at least my institute invited. Perhaps the organisers feared a revolt was in the offing, a notion quickly dispersed by the warm reception for Monsieur President and the very nature of the questions put forward to him, almost pathetically crafted by groups of meticulous masters students the day before.
In his introductory remarks, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke at length as to how his concept of “rebuilding the university” had been at the heart of his presidency, failing to name a successful policy and instead meandering amongst ideas of greater “autonomy” and a more profound separation between the university and research. Taking his cue from the university president in addressing the challenges of the current generation, he highlighted the “unprecedented” level of global interdependence and political affirmation as signs of an increasingly multipolar world which France had to embrace, before quickly turning to his first question on food price insecurity. He said it was the first time the G20 had begun to tackle the issue, particularly in view of the need to boost agricultural production by 60% in the next fifty years. He blamed a production deficit for the “scandal,” stating that all disposable arable land was needed and dismissing calls for sacrificing, say, agricultural production in Europe for that in Africa. To combat the existing “law of the jungle,” he urged greater regulation of the food markets, inviting measures to buy back 15 to 20% of total agricultural production, diminish the likelihood of export embargoes such as Russia’s last year and doing all possible to conserve lands increasingly used for energy purposes. The responsibility for handling the food price crisis, he suggested, would be handed to an international body, in line with a gradual realignment of the global organisations, the UN remaining the guardian of peace and borders, the IMF the world’s economic guarantor and the ILO the ombudsman of worldwide labour conditions, to mention a few.
The following carefully tailored question turned to the matter of the day, the Eurozone crisis. Mr. Sarkozy qualified the world recession as a three-piece puzzle, the result of a crisis of financial regulation, an economic one of uniquely global proportions and sovereign debt. He attributed the developed world’s debt levels to its dominance of global commerce and high social standards, underlining in the process France’s failure to make a balanced budget since 1974. He described rejecting globalisation as “absurd,” accepting its need to change but trumping that rien est mieux que la liberté, rien pire que la protection – conveniently omitting his own protectionist moves in the throes of the recession. He again took the opportunity to whip out his complaints of the 35 hour week and its constraints on the country’s competitiveness, again forgetting how considerably several of his measures have reduced the effectiveness of a legislation ever increasingly less relevant today. When pressed on the steps taken to clamp down on tax havens, he proclaimed that at the 2009 G20 summit in London a “black list” of 64 jurisdictions had been commissioned, since reduced to 11, but failed to allude to his hefty tax concessions for society’s richest. Asked of the Franco-German axis, he reiterated its historical necessity and justified its present dominance of the union on the basis of demographic and economic conditions, affirming that this was no contradiction of the body’s democratic nature. Regarding the question of a split on nuclear policy between the two countries, Sarkozy said he had no plan to renege on the wisdom of his five predecessors and the source of 40% of the country’s electricity. Hours before George Papandreou’s government folded, he took a final swipe at him for calling a referendum on the bailout agreement of the 27th of October, rather than on membership of the common currency, declaring that it was a mistake to admit the country in 2001. Expressing hope for Italy, yet making no mention of its still uncertain political future, he indicated that its sovereign debt was proportionally less than Greece’s – an irrelevance as he should know in these times of barbaric unpredictability. A federal solution to the crisis, he admitted, was difficult to envisage, given the union’s ever continuing enlargement.
Only at the end was a question with some modicum of intent, regarding the latest plan de rigueur, conferred. A little brashly, Sarkozy dismissed the notion of austerity, insisting that the included reformes were nothing comparable in scale to the measures taken in Portugal, Greece or Ireland. He underscored his commitment to nullify the deficit by 2016, deriding a “certain candidate for the presidency’s” signature pledge to reinstate 60,000 teachers, none less than François Hollande’s. And with that, charming and persuasive to most as ever, SuperSarko climbed the aisles to make good on his oft proclaimed ambition to speak to the leaders of tomorrow. A few Socialist activists handed around leaflets graphically exposing the staggering accumulation of debt on his watch. Spin and woo as he may, Monsieur President will have tougher rides than at Strasbourg’s Ecole de Management in the months to come.