Sarkozy delivered his speech in Toulon on Sept. 25, between the advent of the Paulson rescue plan and its defeat in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday. The speech was not well received in France: the opposition was quick to say that the president was using the crisis as a convenient alibi for his own failures; the neoliberals in the president's own party regretted his concessions to the notion that market regulation was, if not a panacea, then at least an intelligent and inevitable response to serial market failures of spectacular proportions.
The criticisms were not altogether unjustified; the logic of Sarkozy's overly surgical distinction between "financial capitalism" and "market capitalism" will not really withstand scrutiny. But in light of the absolute debacle of political leadership in the United States, does not Sarkozy deserve at least some praise for taking note of the gravity of the crisis, attempting to explain it to his people, and frankly assuming responsibility for responding to it? To be sure, in the first few paragraphs he might almost be taken for a House Republican or talk-show populist. The bling-bling president has discovered the cardinal sins of gluttony and avarice; he brands as evildoers people whom he was courting only yesterday. But the vicissitudes of wealth bring out the hypocrite in us all, and Sarko can be forgiven for paying tribute to prudential virtues he discovered only after his bets turned sour. The important point is not that he has changed his tune but that he recognizes the futility of continuing to whistle the old one past the graveyard. Whereas the House Republicans want to save capitalism by cutting a corporate tax so riddled with loopholes that it goes mostly unpaid and by reducing the capital gains tax yet again, even though a capital gain has suddenly become a quaint historical artifact.
Sarkozy may not be anyone's ideal of a president, but to any French person who deplores his deficiencies, I say simply, Compare Sarko's Toulon speech with Bush's various speeches and news conferences of the past week. Then you'll understand what it means to have un président fainéant at the helm in a maelstrom.