France braces for re­forms un­der new leader Sarkozy

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Andrew Borowiec

With elec­tion fever over, France spec­u­lates about whether the much­promised change by Pres­i­dent-elect Ni­co­las Sarkozy is com­ing, and to what ex­tent.

He has pledged a “rup­ture with the past” and new poli­cies that some of his op­po­nents say are likely to be bru­tal.

“Fas­ten your seat belts,” warned a So­cial­ist politi­cian em­bit­tered by his party’s third fu­tile ef­fort to win the pres­i­dency.

“Can Sarkozy trans­form his votes into a re­form-ready ma­jor­ity of cit­i­zens?” asked an­other.

Mr. Sarkozy swept to power May 6 with a com­fort­able 53 per­cent of the votes, de­feat­ing So­cial­ist ri­val Se­go­lene Royal in a runoff elec­tion. The new leader prom­ises to lift France out of eco­nomic stag­na­tion, a cri­sis of con­fi­dence, and to im­prove re­la­tions with the United States.

The de­feated and bruised So­cial­ist Party im­me­di­ately be­gan plans for the June par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that will de­ter­mine Mr. Sarkozy’s “el­bow room” for the re­forms he prom­ises. He moved into the El­y­see pres­i­den­tial palace last week af­ter a week of rest on a yacht in the Mediter­ranean. Un­rest pre­dicted

The po­lit­i­cal hori­zon of the 52year-old con­ser­va­tive pres­i­den­t­elect is clouded by warn­ings of un­rest in the “sub­urbs,” the jerry-built, riot-scarred set­tle­ments on the out­skirts of ma­jor cities, mainly hous­ing poor im­mi­grants from France’s for­mer colonies.

Mr. Sarkozy, as in­te­rior min­is­ter, clamped down on sub­ur­ban ri­ot­ing in the fall of 2005, promis­ing to pun­ish “the scum,” as he termed the re­bel­lious un­em­ployed youths set­ting the sub­urbs on fire. His of­fen­sive ep­i­thet has not been forgotten.

Now, some of Mr. Sarkozy’s op­po­nents, in­clud­ing Miss Royal, fore­cast more po­lar­iza­tion and ri­ots in France’s restive sub­ur­ban slums.

“The con­di­tions for a new ex­plo­sion are there, and it will be more vi­o­lent than be­fore be­cause the de­spair of some will be deeper and the ex­as­per­a­tion of oth­ers will reach its peak,” Miss Royal pre­dicted.

Mr. Sarkozy shrugs off such fore­casts as po­lit­i­cal skir­mish­ing, along with ep­i­thets de­scrib­ing him as “Ge­orge Bush’s poo­dle” or “an Amer­i­can neo-con­ser­va­tive with a French pass­port.” Chirac’s legacy

The legacy left by the com­bined man­dates of 12 years of de­part­ing Pres­i­dent Jac­ques Chirac in­cludes a slug­gish econ­omy, rock­et­ing pub­lic debt and chronic un­em­ploy­ment of 8.8 per­cent, sur­passed in the Euro­pean Union only by Poland, Slo­vakia and Ro­ma­nia. Two mil­lion res­i­dents in France live un­der the poverty level, and three mil­lion are un­em­ployed.

One of ev­ery four French cit­i­zens is a civil ser­vant who can­not be dis­missed.

Mr. Sarkozy has promised to “mor­al­ize cap­i­tal­ism” by re­lax­ing the 35-hour work week in­tro­duced by the So­cial­ists when they were in power, low­er­ing taxes for house­holds and com­pa­nies, curb- ing the power of la­bor unions and over­haul­ing the gen­er­ous pen­sion sys­tem and shock ab­sorbers of gov­ern­ment work­ers.

He also be­lieves in what he once de­scribed as “eco­nomic pa­tri­o­tism,” mean­ing state sup­port for en­ter­prises that help France’s in­ter­na­tional pres­tige.

Miss Royal cam­paigned on a strong So­cial­ist pro­gram that would pro­tect all wel­fare-state ben­e­fits, cre­ate 500,000 sub­si­dized jobs, raise the min­i­mum wage by 20 per­cent and send ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers to boot camps su­per­vised by the French army.

As the elec­toral cam­paign be­came more pas­sion­ate, many started to ques­tion her qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the coun­try’s top job. Miss Royal is 53 years old, an un­mar­ried mother of four, and has served in Cabi­net posts in so­cial­ist gov­ern­ments.

To her sup­port­ers, she em­bod­ies charm, ex­cep­tion­ally good looks and “a mo­ment of truth for fem­i­nin­ity,” in a coun­try that gave women the right to vote in only 1946 and ranks 22nd in the EU in the num­ber of Cabi­net mem­bers.

To Is­abelle Courtiveron, a univer­sity pro­fes­sor, Miss Royal “rep­re­sents a mix­ture of tra­di­tional France and re­bel­lious moder­nity.” Ac­cord­ing to the IP­SOS polling in­sti­tute, the women’s vote went to Mr. Sarkozy. No for­eign pol­icy shift

For­eign pol­icy is­sues were sin­gu­larly ab­sent from the elec­tion cam­paign, with French com­men­ta­tors and an­a­lysts con­clud­ing that no ma­jor changes in that field should be ex­pected.

By all in­di­ca­tions, Mr. Sarkozy will con­tinue France’s crit­i­cism of the war in Iraq, its strong role as a ma­jor part­ner and found­ing mem­ber in the EU, and de­mands for an in­de­pen­dent Euro­pean mil­i­tary force. He will try to im­prove re­la­tions with the United States, strained un­der Mr. Chirac.

An­other sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent as­pect of his for­eign pol­icy pro­gram is op­po­si­tion to Turkey’s ap­pli­ca­tion for EU mem­ber­ship, likely to put the union in a quandary but ap­peas­ing the vot­ers who re­jected the EU draft con­sti­tu­tion in a 2005 ref­er­en­dum, fear­ing it would open a path to Turk­ish mem­ber­ship.

Crit­ics say Mr. Sarkozy’s daunt­ing eco­nomic pro­gram sur­passes the pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by one five-year pres­i­den­tial man­date, de­spite the enor­mous power of the pres­i­dent un­der the con­sti­tu­tion of the Fifth Repub­lic es­tab­lished by the late Charles de Gaulle.

The pres­i­dent de­ter­mines the de­fense and for­eign poli­cies, can dis­solve par­lia­ment, can ap­point and fire prime min­is­ters, veto laws ap­proved by par­lia­ment and par­don crim­i­nals. While in of­fice, the pres­i­dent is im­mune from pros­e­cu­tion, some­thing Mr. Chirac used to his ben­e­fit when faced with fi­nan­cial scan­dals from his ten­ure as mayor of Paris. Key elec­tions in June

Of some con­cern to the new pres­i­dent are the ap­proach­ing leg­isla­tive elec­tions in June that will de­ter­mine the color of the Na­tional As­sem­bly and of the new Cabi­net. If the So­cial­ists, de­feated in the latest par­lia­men­tary elec­tion five years ago, man­age to win, Mr. Sarkozy would be forced into a sys­tem of “co- habi­ta­tion” with a So­cial­ist prime min­is­ter.

Mr. Sarkozy is con­fi­dent this re­sult is un­likely be­cause of the strength of his party, the Union for Pop­u­lar Move­ment. And con­fi­dence is some­thing he has never lacked. As one of his po­lit­i­cal as­so­ciates put it, “He could be left or right, but his al­le­giance is to suc­cess.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s dream of be­com­ing pres­i­dent ap­par­ently goes back to his teenage years.

Ni­co­las Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa is the son of an aris­to­cratic Hun­gar­ian fa­ther and mother of Greek-Jewish an­ces­try con­verted to Catholi­cism. For much of his po­lit­i­cal life, he has been a loner, a man out­side the sys­tem.

A lawyer by pro­fes­sion, he did not at­tend any of the elite schools fa­vored by the French po­lit­i­cal class.

He con­sid­ers him­self to be a mod­ern­izer who is not ret­i­cent to im­pose nec­es­sary changes on the coun­try and claims “the French are not afraid of change; they are wait­ing for it” — a view some an­a­lysts dis­pute.

His of­ten abra­sive be­hav­ior was seen by many as an ob­sta­cle to his elec­tion that he man­aged to over­come. None­the­less, the fes­ter­ing prob­lem of the restive sub­urbs and of the as­sim­i­la­tion of the alien­ated youth re­mains with­out a sat­is­fac­tory so­lu­tion in sight.

One field where Mr. Chirac’s in­ter­est and ex­pe­ri­ence re­gard­ing global is­sues will be missed is that of for­eign pol­icy. He had a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with the world’s lead­ing states­men and in­tensely cul­ti­vated friend­ships with the lead­ers of for­mer French colonies.

Mr. Chirac’s op­po­si­tion to U.S. pol­icy in Iraq and his fre­quent na­tion­al­ist out­bursts gained him con­sid­er­able ap­proval. But he burned his fin­gers by call­ing a ref­er­en­dum on the EU con­sti­tu­tion, rather than sim­ple par­lia­men­tary ap­proval which was vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed. A friend of the U.S.

Mr. Sarkozy is no for­eign pol­icy ex­pert and so far has care­fully avoided is­sues that could ex­pose ei­ther his lack of knowl­edge or ex­pe­ri­ence.

A strong France with a unique voice and world role are part of the Gaullist tra­di­tion to which Mr. Sarkozy sub­scribes. He ap­pears to be sat­is­fied with France’s in­flu­ence in the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and its stature as a nu­clear power, with­out need­ing to dis­cuss such is­sues fur­ther.

He is un­likely to make bold de­ci­sions on French pol­icy in the Mid­dle East or on the EU’s con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia’s in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Said Valery Gis­card d’Es­taing, a for­mer French pres­i­dent, “It’s France liv­ing with the shut­ters closed, as if the out­side world did not ex­ist.”

De­rided by the So­cial­ist op­po­si­tion as “an Amer­i­can lackey,” Mr. Sarkozy re­gards him­self as “a friend of the United States” but with­out stress­ing it too much in a coun­try where anti-Amer­i­can­ism is pop­u­lar.

None­the­less, in his vic­tory speech, he pledged friend­ship with “the world’s great­est democ­racy.”

“France will al­ways be there when they [the United States] need us,” he said, adding quickly that “friend­ship means ac­cept­ing that friends can have dif­fer­ent opin­ions.”

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

France’s Pres­i­dent-elect Ni­co­las Sarkozy (left) in­her­its a slug­gish econ­omy, rock­et­ing pub­lic debt and chronic un­em­ploy­ment from his pre­de­ces­sor Jac­ques Chirac (right).

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