OPINION

Secular religion

Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance in Brussels on Monday was somewhat theatrical. The French president showed up at the finance ministers’ meeting with two surprises in store: First, he exempted France from the obligation to achieve a balanced budget by 2010 and, second, he proposed a political administration for the eurozone that will preside over the European Central Bank (ECB). The liberal reformist prefers the role of the Gaullist patriot who does not hesitate to do battle with the leftist enemies of casino capitalism. It’s a surprise development given that if there was one country that passionately backed the project of European monetary union, it was France. In the wake of German reunification, Paris believed that sacrificing the German mark on the altar of the common currency would avert the revived threat of a German Europe. In return, the French had to swallow the establishment of an independent ECB modeled on the Bundesbank. But they never felt comfortable with the idea. The issue of an economic administration for the eurozone had already been aired since the time of the Chirac-Jospin government. The French elites have a thing about containing the power of equity market capital. Some critics say that Sarkozy has created a crack that threatens to rupture the foundations of Europe’s fiscal discipline. Others see this as a short-term populist PR exercise for domestic consumption. In both cases, the Gaullist politician has raised crucial questions that cannot be ignored following the French people’s rejection of a proposed EU constitution. For how long will European bankers constitute an oligarchic, unaccountable, super-government? For how long will economic austerity be the standard economic policy? For how long will fiscal stability be the secular, technocratic religion of our times?