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Republicans: Take a lesson from France

Marketplace Staff Jan 31, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: The French health minister’s about to become a very popular guy. He said this week he thinks people should take more naps — on the job, if fatigue is cutting into productivity. The French government’s going to spend $9 million this year to raise awareness about sleep problems. Some might argue, but commentator David Frum says France is the brightest bulb on the international block these days when it comes to good ideas.

DAVID FRUM: If you’re a Republican these days, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that your party’s intellectual fuel tank is running pretty close to empty.

But there is a place where the local conservative party is revving with exciting new ideas. Believe it or not, that place is France.

The economies of continental Europe have not performed well in recent years. Few countries face worse problems than France — and few have found it more difficult to act. A decade ago, a conservative prime minister tried some tentative reforms and was crushed at the next election. Since then, France’s center-right and center-left have stalemated each other and the energy has seeped out of each.

But suddenly there is motion. France elects a new president this spring. And the party of incumbent president Jacques Chirac has just nominated as his successor Chirac’s worst political enemy, Nicholas Sarkozy.

Chirac is a conservative statist, who has used France’s huge government to defend state-backed business monopolies.

Sarkozy breaks the mold of senior French politicians. He is the son and grandson of immigrants, partly Jewish. He did not attend prestigious schools.

He unabashedly admires the dynamism of the U.S. economy. Critics call him “the American.” He has even publicly discussed his marital troubles, unusual in a country where politicians are allowed to do anything so long as they say nothing.

Last week, Sarkozy opened discussion of his economic platform. He proposes to replace only one out of every two retiring civil servants. He proposes to reduce taxes on those who work longer than the statutory 35-hour week. He blames the nation’s decline on its statist political traditions. Lamenting the weakness of the French economy, he quips that French Socialists seek “to redistribute wealth that does not exist.”

Sarkozy now leads the polls. If he wins, Republicans may want to revert to calling “freedom fries” by their proper name — and realize that we may have something to learn from France after all.

RYSSDAL: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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