Disappointing Sarkonomics

French president Nicholas Sarkozy is quite possibly the greatest of European leaders today. He has regained for his country a preeminent position within the European Union and took little time to repair the transatlantic discord that so disturbed French foreign policy since the start of the Iraq War in 2003. On the economic front however, his achievements are less impressive.

Although foreman of France’s right-wing, Sarkozy has displayed little love for free-market economics since the recession struck almost two years ago. Indeed, he blames the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model for today’s trouble and hopes to demonstrate “the victory of the European model” — which, probably, means the victory of the French model in his view.

France has comfortably overcome the townturn thanks to that model: the country has a huge public sector that currently employs about one in every five workers. Besides, Sarkozy has shown himself willing to protect the French private sector also, demanding, for instance, that automaker Renault create jobs at home in exchange for stimulus funding. The relative lack of unemployment comes at a cost though: the public debt has naturally skyrocketed while Paris maintains an 8.5 percent deficit on the budget. That in spite of demands from Brussels that it be cut to 3 percent in accordance with European regulation.

Sarkozy then turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Frenchmen after all. That is not to say that he isn’t refreshing at all. Abroad, the president has persued an intelligent and most successful foreign policy while at home, he has fulfilled many of his campaign promises, although not always with the most stunning of results. His large-scale effort to cut on public expenditure for example has been practically brought to a standstill since the first signs of economic anxiety became apparent.

In Newsweek Tracy McNicoll concludes that Sarkozy really has no economic principles. “Sarkozy has the flexibility to win battles but not the single-minded vision to define or win a war, as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher did.” Perhaps. Then again, flexibility alone seems a lot to be grateful for these days.

Sarkozy Strikes at the City

With France, along with Germany, leading the way of European recovery, President Nicolas Sarkozy has both the power and the prestige to launch a reinvigorated campaign against what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of finance. With his countryman Jean-Claude Trichet heading the European Central Bank and UMP-ally Michel Barnier soon to be installed as the union’s internal market commissioner, Sarkozy appears to have everything in place to make the world see “the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.” No wonder that people are worried in the City of London.

London was quick to respond. Mayor Boris Johnson traveled to Brussels to lecture the European Parliament but his entourage of rabble-rousers and cameramen did little to persuade them. Nor was Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling’s argument that “London is New York’s only rival as a truly global financial center,” and therefore Europe should strengthen, not weaken it, well received.

Earlier, in conference with his colleagues from across the continent, Darling compromised on the creation of a European financial regulator. French finance minister Christine Lagarde praised the deal which according to Darling leaves considerable responsibility with national authorities. That is not how his counterparts sold the agreement at home.

Nevertheless, there is some truth in Darling’s statement. A European Systemic Risk Board is to be put in place to spot irregularities in the financial system that threaten to harm it. But it will have no power to leap upon banks to put any questionable practices to a halt. Rather it is supposed to issue recommendations and warnings alone.

Sarkozy has more weapons in store to bombard Paris to the world’s next financial capital however. A European Alternative Investment Directive seeks to install a framework for all alternative fund managers which in London is rather perceived as an attempt to shackle another sector of “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” capitalism. If that were true, Paris in fact stands to gain very little: hedge funds taking a pre-emptive decision to leave London headed straight for Switzerland, not Paris or Frankfurt.

There is more reason for Londoners to be hopeful. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes in the Telegraph, Barnier is actually “deeply averse to trampling on British sensitivities.” Moreover, his director-general, Jonathan Faull, is British. “Given the circumstances, the Barnier-Faull team is the best that Britain could hope for.” Whether that will stop Sarkozy remains to be seen.