Conservative Nikolas Sarkozy's comfortable victory over Socialist Ségolène Royal in France's presidential race may that indicate Europe's slowest-growing major economy is finally ready for some change.
Long derided as a "center of social rest" for its cradle-to-grave welfare state, mandatory 35-hour work week, public-sector strikes and ossified employment rules, France has voted for a new president who claims he wants to shake things up. "France does not fear change," Mr. Sarkozy told his supporters as the vote progressed yesterday, "France hopes for it."
That's unclear. It's certainly true that Mr. Sarkozy styled himself as a reformer who wants to arrest the pessimism gripping a country where polls show 70% of voters think their country is in decline. He advocated tax cuts, allowing overtime, and shrinking the central government's bloated bureaucracy by filling only half of the slots opened up by retirement. "The best social model is one that gives work to everyone," he would tell audiences in calling for more dynamism in the economy. "That is no longer ours."
But at the same time the former interior and finance minister has shown a willingness to bail out failing French companies and to embrace greater protectionism. Mr. Sarkozy is certainly no heir to Margaret Thatcher or even Tony Blair, but he is someone that free-market advocates can at least do business with.
So too can Americans. Mr.Sarkozy was willing to take a lot of heat back home from his visit to America last September on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While in the U.S., he made it clear that although France's foreign policy will often be opposed to America's, he puts great importance on improving relations. "He's very admiring of the dynamism of the American people, and of their capacity to give an opportunity to everyone," says Michel Barnier, a former foreign minister who is advising Mr. Sarkozy.
By French standards Mr. Sarkozy is positively effusive about the need for the two countries to emphasize their points of agreement. "My dedication to our relationship with America if well known and has earned me substantial criticism in France," he said. "But let me tell you something, I'm not a coward. I embrace that friendship. I'm proud of the friendship . . . and I proclaim it proudly." He then went on to say that France's foreign policy had often suffered from an arrogant and insensitive approach, a clear reference to the haughty attitudes of retiring president Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.
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