Who woke up Old Europe? France, Ireland and England this week showed us the future. They were the center of the new. It looked good. We can learn from them.
First Ireland, which Tuesday formalized a peace that most who love that country would not have thought possible in our lifetimes. And it was barely noticed, as sometimes happens with good news. But the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland ratified a power-sharing agreement in which they will govern together and forswear violence. Everyone knew it was coming—the voters had backed it—yet the sight of it, the Ulstermen and Catholics standing together in the Stormont, and the words, took one’s breath away. Here is 81-year-old Ian Paisley, the Unionist firebrand whose life was shaped by his passionate advocacy for the Protestants and against the IRA. There was pain in the past, he said, but “that was yesterday. This is today. And tomorrow will be tomorrow. From the depths of my heart, I can say to you today that I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule.”
What a way to mark the new century. What an example for the world. We learn what we already know and need always to be reminded: Breakthroughs can happen even in the oldest, most tortured conflicts. Hearts change. So much of Ireland’s energy the past hundred years, the past 500, has gone to conflict. What will that energy go to now? What will it make? It will be exciting to see.
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In France it was a spirited political fight, one with meaning, purpose and perhaps promise. Socialist Ségolène Royal attempted to become the first female French president; Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to be the first serious conservative president in generations. At issue: how to make France modern, how to wake it up and make it new again. She said she could bring reform with “calm and serenity.” He said greater vigor is needed, and a break with the past: cut taxes, cut government, leave more room for markets. They were not Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.
It comes as a relief to admire France again, and not only or even primarily for the comparative wisdom of its choosing the conservative. It’s how they did it. A short and intense campaign between candidates who were impressive, interesting. Historic voter turnout. And the great debate, watched by 20 million people, who learned. In all this, France showed style, in the deepest sense of a manner, a spirit, an approach, revealing of character and aspirations.
The debate wasn’t guys in ties in a row, it was a man and a woman sitting face to face across a table. They were eyeball to eyeball, and you got to see who blinked. The moderators were modest, in the background, not the star. Even the two candidates were not the star. What they think and who they are was the star.
At one point, as they disagreed on the facts of the mainstreaming of exceptional children, Ms. Royal accused Mr. Sarkozy of “the height of political immorality” and of “lying.” She said she was “scandalized” and “very angry.” She meant to show her steel, puncture his imperturbability, and reveal his rumored dark temper. Look what happened:
Sarkozy: Calm yourself, Madame.
Royal: No, I will not calm down.
Sarkozy: You need to be calm to be president of the Republic. . . . I don’t know why Mrs. Royal, who is normally so calm, has lost her cool.
Royal: I have not lost my cool! I am angry, sometimes it is right and healthy to be angry. The president of the Republic should be angry at injustice.
Sarkozy: You fly off the handle very easily . . .
It was a clever flipping of intent: He showed her temper. Watching it, you could imagine unseen subtitles. I did not call you a liar, Monsieur Liarface. I did not call you emotional, Madame Hotflash.
Ms. Royal’s frustration, and the look she got when she realized she’d dug a hole, was as revealing as Mr. Sarkozy’s enjoyment of the inflicting of pain; he seemed to show a mild version of that great old word of French derivation, sadism.
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Madame Royal is not Madame Rodham, France is not America, and too much is being made of the parallels with Hillary Clinton. But the French race might have shown a certain rough template for how to puncture Mrs. Clinton’s persistent air of inevitability, and for one big reason.
What Mr. Sarkozy had going for him in the debate is that he was not afraid of Ms. Royal because she was a woman. He was not undone by her femininity. American candidates seem much more awkward in this area. When up against a strong woman, male candidates don’t know what is appropriate and standard political aggression and what is ungentlemanly bullying.
Mr. Sarkozy was not afraid or tentative. He was poised. He seemed to think he was facing a formidable adversary, and it didn’t matter whether it was a man or a woman, it mattered that she was a socialist and socialism isn’t helpful. And so he approached her as a person who is wrong.
She was not afraid of the boy. He was not afraid of the girl. He granted her no particular mystique; she granted him no particular advantage. They were appropriate.
Mr. Sarkozy also did something with Ms. Royal that might be usefully remembered by Mrs. Clinton’s foes. Ms. Royal, when the unexpected happened—”Calm down!”—showed she wasn’t so good at improvising. She didn’t react with any tactical grace. This reminded me of Mrs. Clinton, who also seems unsure and unsteady when pushed off script or put at the mercy of happenstance. She can’t rely on her instincts, because deep down she knows her instincts are no match for her will. She’s not light on her feet. Her foes would do well to keep this in mind.
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Finally, in England this week, Tony Blair gracefully announced the end of his Downing Street rule. He returned to his old district, Sedgefield, where he’d begun his career, and spoke of what he honestly felt he’d done right and what he knew he’d done wrong, or unsuccessfully. He spoke of the personal and yet higher context of his journey, as he called it. “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down.”
He leaves as he presided, with spirit and dignity, an example to American political figures and, one would hope, an inspiration.
So: peace, passion and a bit of profundity. It is good to see old Europe rock. A bow to their excellence is in order.