In politics, you can chose to be a pedagogue or a demagogue. You can take the risk of setting yourself at odds with the majority of your citizens, because you deeply believe in the argument you are making. Or you can decide that the best argument is the one that is shared by the majority and that by following that line you will maximize your chances of being reelected.
In the past few weeks, the American and French presidents have represented near perfect illustrations of these two models. By appearing to endorse the building of a mosque and Islamic cultural center at the threshold of Ground Zero, Barack Obama has placed himself in the "pedagogue" category. By delivering a muscular speech on security in the city of Grenoble, followed by the numerous expulsion of a single ethnic group, the Roma, Nicolas Sarkozy has positioned himself in the "demagogue" category.
The pedagogue considers the risk of his personal defeat more acceptable than the risk of endangering the principles on which his nation and his party are based. Freedom of conscience and religious practice defines "who we are," remarked Barack Obama in his initial defense of the building of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. This is what America is fighting for, this is why American soldiers are dying and this is what distinguishes them from the Muslim fanatics of 9/11. The pedagogue will also care about the image of his country abroad. He will ask himself whether what he says -- for words are weapons -- or what he does is coherent with the image he wants to transmit of his country in the world.
The demagogue by contrast, will consider these matters as "intellectual" and clearly secondary. He will define a strategy based on purely electoral concerns. One can almost hear him saying, "I know what my country needs, but I do not know how I can be reelected if I do it."
In the last days, Barack Obama's positions on the building of a mosque near Ground Zero have become less crystal clear, but he has nevertheless -- together with the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg -- indicated where his head and heart stood spontaneously. In so doing he has been above all coherent with himself and his vision of the United States and its history and culture. Faithful to his "audacity of hope" motto, he has emphasized once more the message of tolerance and openness he has transmitted to the world of Islam in his Cairo and Istanbul speeches. He has opposed the bigotry of all those who consider that building a mosque near Ground Zero is equivalent to handing over a victory to the murderers of 9/11.
Barack Obama's gut reaction may not improve his party's chances in the upcoming midterm elections of November, but his initial instinct has been sound and brave.
Nicolas Sarkozy, by contrast, is playing with the xenophobic fears of part of his electorate, trying to win it back, by a security discourse worthy of the extreme right and that places him dangerously outside the realm of principles on which the French Republic, the nation of "Les Droits de l'Homme," is proudly based. By doing so, Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the risk of isolating ethically, if not legally, his country in Europe and the world.
There was a time, not that long ago, when France presented itself, in its strict respect for international law, as "the eldest daughter of the United Nations" the way monarchical France thought of itself as the "eldest daughter of the Catholic Church." Judging by the reactions of the UN experts Committee on Human Rights, this is clearly no longer the case. From the Council of Europe to the Catholic Church in France, not to mention the implicit critique in French coming from the Pope himself, criticisms of France policies are now mounting.
Not so long ago, Nicolas Sarkozy was proud to present himself as "Sarkozy the American," i.e. the "doer," the man who wants to be judged by his actions. Well, this is precisely, what the world is doing.