Liberty Belle

France's new libertarian youth leader


Most French people devote their summers to quintessentially Gallic pursuits: celebrating Bastille Day, spending some of their mandatory eight-week vacation time, going on strike.

But Sabine Herold, to put it mildly, is not your typical Frog. Herold, the 22-year-old leader of Liberté, J'ecris Ton Nom (Freedom, I Write Your Name), has in the last few months emerged as the massively popular and highly photogenic leader of—zut!—a burgeoning pro-market, pro-American counterculture in France. Earning comparisons to Joan of Arc, Brigitte Bardot (!), and Margaret Thatcher in the panting British press, she represents something French politics hasn't seen in years: a public figure eager to take on the country's endlessly striking unions.

It is startling to hear any Parisienne, let alone a college student, drop references to F. A. Hayek in casual conversation, describe Communists as "disgusting," or lead pro-war demonstrations in front of the American Embassy. Herold is fond of issuing heretical statements guaranteed to make any good fonctionnaire's skin crawl.

"I think you have no legitimacy [as a politician] if you've never worked," she tells me during a phone interview in July. "I don't want to be a kind of apparatchik. I think if you're not able to do things for yourself, or show that you can help a company, how can you help the state?" She supports gay marriage and legalizing pot, reputedly whips up a mean five-course meal, and uses the word libertarian as the highest possible compliment.

Still, no amount of contrarian spunk could have prepared Herold for the summer that has just passed. On June 15, in the midst of crippling transportation and education strikes against Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's plan to reform France's ailing pension system, Herold led an anti-union rally that shocked her and the rest of the country by drawing 80,000 angry people. In a realm whose coin is the demonstration, this was reportedly the largest right-of-center protest since 1984, giving some optimists reason to declare it a turning point in public attitudes toward the Never-Ending Strike.

"We were so surprised to see all these people who just came to say that they were fed up with the unions and fed up with the strikes," Herold remembers, still amazed at the response.

When the pension-reform strikes subsequently fizzled, Herold was immediately feted by Fleet Street. (To date, British newspapers have given her far more coverage than their French counterparts have.) Daily Telegraph Publisher Conrad Black brought the Young Right Hope across the Channel for a whirlwind tour of meet-and-greets with the U.K.'s top Tories. (Lady Thatcher, regrettably, canceled at the last minute to attend to her dying husband.)

Some of the most prominent French politicians soon followed suit, eager to learn more about Herold's dynamic young organization. She also found time last summer to graduate from the elite Institut de Science Politique, study for entrance exams to get into business school, and celebrate her 22nd birthday.

"It's been really, really weird," she says, laughing.

Herold laughs easily and often. And, just maybe, the long-silent French minority that shares her views finally has a reason to crack a wary smile of its own: For the first time in memory, they have an influential ally in Prime Minister Raffarin. "He's a libertarian," Herold insists, in excellent, accented English. "The problem is that in his government he has too many other people more conservative, so he can't have a real libertarian policy."

Still, by most accounts, Herold's anti-strike revolt has given Raffarin extra fiber. "The government has stood firm on pension reform," the International Herald-Tribune reported in July, citing Herold's protests. "Now, analysts say, it may be emboldened to push for further economic changes, such as stepped-up privatization of state-owned companies, and efforts to improve the workings of the labor market. Under discussion are reductions in the social security charges levied on employers, which have already been cut back sharply in recent years for some workers."

Despite these impressive early results, Herold's long-term task is truly Sisyphean: Chip away at the ossified paternalism in French and European governance, convince a nation that treasures its generous safety net that it can't last, and confront an entrenched culture that views noisome public sector strikes as the preferred method for conflict resolution.

"It's annoying," Herold says, "because in France, we start striking, and then we go to negotiate. It would be so much more interesting to go negotiate first, and then if nothing happens, just go on strike. I don't know, maybe it's an old love of the Revolution, or that people missed World War II and they want to be in another kind of Resistance."

So how did the elite, conformist French education system produce such a cheery iconoclast? Herold's mom is a schoolteacher, and her dad's a professor, from a village near the northern Champagne-producing city of Reims. Their child says she was "almost apolitical" upon arriving at the "mostly left-wing" Science-Po in Paris.

She attributes her political evolution to a professor here, a student there, and mostly a lot of reading: Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville, and her beloved Hayek. She joined Liberté, J'Ecris Ton Nom two years ago, discovering some intellectual soul mates, but mostly her fellow students considered her "kind of a lost cause."

"Most of the young people in France think that nice people should be left-wing," Herold says, "since we've all been to the same kind of schools, which are state schools, and then in the media there's only one way of thinking."

Those who have been busy these last months calling her countrymen "weasels" are surely familiar with the notion that the top-down French society tends to produce monochromatic views at odds with the White House. Herold, who considers herself a strong patriot, bristles at the tension, but lays much of the blame on the French government's anti-war policies and the broad-based anti-Yankee sentiment behind it.

"I think one of the big problems in France is that we are anti-American without knowing why," she says. "It's just kind of a natural thing. I mean so many people I meet are anti-war, and they'll just say that Bush is stupid and the Americans are awful imperialists. It's just their typical answer, and they never think of why. That's crazy. I think it's because we're all being brought up like that, especially at school. It's incredible how we're taught about America—they're always explaining, for example in geography or history courses, how Americans are imperialistic."

If Herold sometimes sounds rigid (example: "I think people should not talk about politics on stupid TV shows"), consider that she's only 22, that she's saying much of this with a chuckle, and that this is her first go-round with intense media coverage. (She describes one of Fleet Street's profiles of her as "not very good reporting…because there are many things I didn't say, or didn't say in that way, or [that were] just out of context.")

Rigidity is one thing, but being blasé about having the Communist Party as a major player in the ruling government coalition (as it was until last year), or having a cultural establishment dominated by unrepentant former Maoists, is quite another.

What's next? Herold plans two years of business school, followed by a job in the private sector, maybe some more travel, and then who knows? In the meantime, there are rumors of more strikes in the fall, which is when we should find out whether Herold and the Liberté, J'Ecris Ton Nom movement are the beginning of a lasting anti-strike revolt—and the vanguard of a libertarian youth movement in France.