Leadership Growing Up: France and the US

There was an interesting article today in the Financial Times entitled, "Sarkozy goes cold on Obama relationship" by Ben Hall. What is described as Obama's "reserve" and Sarkozy's being "intuitive, impulsive and direct," represents not only a contrast, but also how the two Presidents have been influenced by different backgrounds, even, I would argue, how they each appear to view the world, and their respective country's roles in that world. Presidents set the tone for a country and right now, Obama's tone appears to be serious and thoughtful and indeed quite "reserved." Sarkozy's has always seemed energetic if not frenetic, a bit all over the place and ever-changing. But these personality differences can also be seen as springing from their very diverse backgrounds.

Both men were raised by single mothers, albeit Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was from a Midwestern family which was not well-off, and she built a life based on service, academic accomplishment and helping the poorest of the poor from rural Indonesia to Africa through her dedication to microcredit. She, and her own mother, Obama's grandmother, almost always worked to help support their families. She made sure her children realized the importance of a strong education and Obama ended up graduating from some of the top schools in the world. Obama's father was not present, yet, based on his writings, Obama felt that the absent father was an enormous presence even in his absence. The US President's success is also the direct result of the vast shifts in society as a result of the Civil Rights movement, and, arguably feminism. Obama began as a community organizer and has learned that we cannot forget those at the bottom of the pyramid. He has a very mellow, balanced way of observing and then responding. His family stretches from Hawaii to Indonesia, China and Kenya. He has ties with both grass roots organizations, while still keeping a (perhaps too open?) ear to Wall Street.

President Obama is married to the same woman he met in his 20s, who herself came from a working class family with deep ties to the Chicago African-American community, and who made her way to the top universities in the US, going on to use her brains to accomplish a great deal, in addition to being a mother. She is a fantastic role model for women today (though I still have a huge amount of respect for Hillary Clinton who never seemed to stop her professional work life even as First Lady). I hope one day Michelle Obama is able to resume her own professional life, though being First Lady is surely a full-time job.

President Sarkozy on the other hand, grew up as the son of a single mother who had been married to a Hungarian aristocrat, a playboy. He is the result of a generation in France heavily influenced by a US definition of "success", with a lifestyle described in France as very "People", i.e. he can appear at times to hang out with his wealthy friends and make it onto the covers of a few too many magazines for the French taste. Sarkozy takes pride in not being too intellectual, and not having attended one of France's top schools, thus breaking with tradition. He also divorces himself from the 1968 generation in France as he is both of that generation, but somehow was never part of it, not part of the changes which took place (though arguably benefitting from the ways in which that "revolution" allowed for more personal choices and freedoms). He began in politics by representing one of the wealthiest suburbs in France, Neuilly, and he has strong ties to the financial community which has, in general supported him. He has a half brother who is well-known on Wall Street and went on to work with the infamous Carlyle Group. He appears to pride himself of being close to those in power, and would not be considered to be "of the people", but rather supported by networks of mostly male-dominated business and other tight circles of influence.

After some initial criticism, Sarkozy's marriage with Carla Bruni Sarkozy has at last settled into something that the French appear to be more comfortable with, and she is adding a little glamour to the French Presidency. Her work with AIDS charities and her ability to look fabulous in just about any kind of clothes has reminded the French that they also export a kind of sophistication (as well as a heck of a lot of luxury brands) to the rest of the world. Bruni-Sarkozy comes from an extremely wealthy background, and as far as I can gather, did not attend school much after she left for New York and elsewhere to model and record some pretty good songs. I don't know if I would call her a "role model," but I would say that her ideas have surely helped soften her husband's image, and brought him to a more moderate political stance.

So back now to the differences described in the FT article, and the fact that a kind of anti-Americanism which raises its head from time to time in France, might be once again more present than not. I would argue that as Obama is helping the US change its persona, with the reserve and hard choices he is now making during these very difficult times, he is also helping the US grow up as a nation. While still showing real leadership, Obama is also communicating to the rest of the world that this the US may be changing its role a bit, and he is asking other nations to work with us. Think of the Cairo speech. That was a speech made by someone who is not dictating to others but saying everyone has to do their part.. He has been respectful of others, even to the point of being criticized about his approach to China being both too soft and too confrontational.

It could be argued that Obama is helping to move the US towards a more seemingly European-style (and sustainable) way of dealing with some vital areas of concern: health care, rebuilding infrastructure, helping rebuild public education. At the same time France has been flirting with privatization of social services (but came up against massive strikes each time). The perfect balance is somewhere in the middle. Take what works best and create new models. Make sure that there is not a handful of people getting rich off of supplying a nation's people with services which should be considered basic human rights. Do not continue the Bush-style shifting of public monies into private pockets!!! This holds true for both France and the US.

France on the other hand is repositioning itself to take on leadership roles in many areas. One is the much-rumoured idea that Paris could become a financial center to compete with London's City. Another I have heard is that Sharia based banking would find a home in France. France has had some recent problems with its relationships with China (Sarkozy's audience with the Dalai Lama, etc.). Sarkozy's government does not seem to be about helping France grow up, but in fact helping France to redefine some of the staid old assumptions. Yet I would argue that where Obama appears as a kind of benevolent "reserved" father figure, Sarkozy appears to be still searching for who he is.

Perhaps the most telling sentence in the FT article is the one which comes the closest to what I have witnessed going back and forth these past years: "On financial regulation, climate change, global governance, or even Iran, the positions of Paris and Washington have converged..." As the US has been moving out of its Narcissistic Me-focused approach into a more grown up We focused approach, France has perhaps become more Narcissistic. There is indeed a kind of void to be filled in terms of world leadership at the moment. But it may be that we all need to lead together and that no one country or part of the world should dominate.

In other words, perhaps all of our leaders should grow up. We need to act in responsible ways towards one another, towards our planet and towards the economy in general. No more of this Master of the Universe playing with the lives of others. As every parent tells their teenager, "Don't drink and drive." We need some sober folks at the wheel right now. And I would argue, more women!