A Right Turn in France
Why new President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a tough road ahead
PARIS-He is the son of a Hungarian immigrant whose tough, even brazen talk causes apprehension among some segments of the population. He is not afraid to express admiration for the United States. He does not hide his love of money, his opulent tastes, or his close friendship with millionaires. He does not drink and jogs rain or shine. He has often been compared to Napoleon, not because of his talent but because of his height. He is France's very un-French new president.
Nicolas Sarkozy takes up residence this week in the Elysée Palace, the French White House, after 12 listless years under the Gaullist Jacques Chirac. That period saw stagnating salaries, continuing high unemployment, the flight of capital and ambitious young people, a decline of French influence in world affairs, and urban riots that lay bare the beloved French myth of égalité and fraternité.
Sarkozy takes office as one of the most legitimately elected presidents since Gen. Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958, winning 53 percent of the vote in the second round against his Socialist opponent Ségolène Royal on a clear, precise platform calling for fundamental change. What's more, the election brought voter turnouts near the 85 percent mark, the highest level since 1981. "People want concrete and rapid change," wrote Arnaud Leparmentier in the left-of-center Le Monde newspaper after Sarkozy's victory. "They no longer believe in ideology and are no longer satisfied with vague promises."
Profound reforms. Yet the question on everyone's mind is whether Sarkozy, despite his clear mandate, will be able to do what perhaps only de Gaulle himself has achieved in modern France. That is, profoundly reform a system badly in need of repair and reconcile the recalcitrant French with the imperatives of the modern world. "It will depend on his courage," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, senior research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "He will have to make profound reforms, but he should do it in such a way that they will be accepted in the end."
Sarkozy's ambitions for France will indeed require Napoleonic courage. He has promised to create jobs through added flexibility in the labor market, in large part by easing (but not eliminating) the requirement setting the 35-hour workweek, which was established by a previous Socialist government. Under his plan, those who wish would be able to work more overtime without the added wages being hit by the crushing payroll and income taxes. The new president also plans to cut corporate and inheritance taxes and to significantly reduce the individual tax burden. The hope is that this last measure will encourage the thousands of wealthy French who have fled the country to return-with their money.
These measures are likely to find quick approval in the new French Parliament to be elected next month, which is expected to be dominated by Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement conservative party. The real problem, one that could prove to be his Waterloo, is Sarkozy's announced frontal attack on citadels such as the educational establishment and the public service unions, which have so successfully derailed past attempts at even modest reform. The new president wants to grant universities additional autonomy and to introduce a law requiring basic services to be continued to reduce the impact of strikes by public transport and other government employees. He also intends to cut back the generous special pensions enjoyed by many public sector workers.
Yet even paler versions of the reforms Sarkozy is proposing have in the past led to massive strikes, general paralysis, and the inevitable capitulation by both left- and right-wing governments. "Do unions still have the capacity to challenge and resist? That question cannot be answered today," Defarges says. "But people know that things cannot continue as they are."
While Sarkozy's victory has been hailed in the United States as the start of a new, more cooperative era in the turbulent Franco-American relationship, experts warn against expecting too much as long as George Bush is in the White House. "Because his priority is domestic politics, he [Sarkozy] cannot make changes in foreign policy that the French would not understand," Dominique Moïsi, a leading foreign policy analyst, says, referring to the deep public antagonism toward the American president. "Getting too close to Bush is out of the question."
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.