Seeing Nicolas Sarkozy speak on Monday was more than worth the 45-minute wait in the rain, the airport-style security, and then the hour-long wait once inside. In fact, aside from lottery number disappointment, Monday was arguably one of the best and most exciting days of my nearly two years at Columbia.
This excitement, however, did not stem from any particular love for Sarkozy as a politician or for his policies, which I have mixed feelings about at best. Rather, the combination of simply getting to hear an influential and controversial political leader speak in such an intimate and close-to-home setting, the leader being president of the country where I plan to study abroad, Sarkozy’s undeniable charisma and refreshing frankness, and, of course, the presence of Carla Bruni, made this event so exciting for me that the actual content of Sarkozy’s speech became almost secondary.
Furthermore, while his conversational and outspoken tone was convincingly organic, he clearly knew his audience and tailored the content—and the delivery—of his speech accordingly. He strongly echoed Columbia’s love for free speech and embodied exactly the Sarkozy image that President Bollinger praised during his introduction—his lack of fear of the political repercussions of being bluntly honest about his opinions on complex and controversial issues.
Sarkozy expressed this seemingly unafraid attitude most notably in his criticisms of the two hottest topics of the moment—the economy and the health care debate. While telling us that France hasn’t had to reform its health care system in a hundred years is not exactly a constructive way of criticizing the multiplicity of flaws in both the U.S.’s health care system and the debate itself, his point shed light on the need for the U.S. to look and listen to other countries—a reflection of his larger point. His approach to the economy took a similarly blunt, though slightly more lighthearted, tone. He began his attack on our economy by openly addressing the “suspicions” about his own socialist nature, a move that I appreciated. He defended his views by essentially verifying these rumors—he claimed that heavier regulation (more socialism) is necessary in order to save and maintain capitalism, a theory that was proven in the recent economic crash and bailout. Going even further with his disparagement of capitalism, Sarkozy questioned how one could possibly defend a capitalist system of speculation after seeing the huge losses it has brought upon us. Though I do not consider myself a socialist, he had a point, and I think more people than would readily admit find themselves questioning the strength of our capitalist economic system. Describing the kind of global economy he envisioned, Sarkozy painted a highly idealistic picture of all countries—including the underrepresented Latin American, Asian, Arab, and African nations—working together to prescribe a set of rules and regulations and form a functional global economy. This point, combined with his unobstructed praise of our universities, to me, revealed Sarkozy’s very clear understanding of the critical, cosmopolitan, idealistic, and intellectual student audience.
Despite the appeal of his straightforward, true-to-himself (or to his politically manufactured image) tone—and I did find it appealing—there remains an element of hypocrisy that seems inescapable for any politician. While I wholeheartedly agree with Sarkozy’s call for recognition of the interdependence of the world’s nations and for more global discourse, it is hard for me to take this demand seriously coming from someone with seemingly close-minded immigration policies.
However, especially in the moment, the coolness factor outweighed these more substantive concerns, and Sarkozy succeeded at presenting himself as a relatable, honest, open, and worldly world leader.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in French & Romance philology.