Can Sarkozy reform France?

Posted: May 07, 2007 4:52 PM

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.

But the clearest break that Mr. Sarkozy represents from leaders like Mr. Chirac is in his background. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he has always been viewed as an outsider by French elites. He failed to attend the prestigious National School of Administration, where almost every leading figure in French politics, including purported populist Ségolène Royal, went.

It is difficult for Americans to appreciate just how removed from the French people the nation's bureaucratic elite is. Its arrogance is mind-boggling. One of Mr. Chirac's ministers privately compared the public's repudiation of the EU Constitution in 2005 to a temper tantrum. Listen to former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the prime architect of the now-rejected 448-article European Constitution, when he was asked to respond to complaints that voters would have trouble understanding the dense document: "The text is easily read and quite well phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote it myself."

Even Jean Michel Fourgous, a parliamentary member of Mr. Chirac's own Union for a Popular Movement, bemoans his party's refusal to adopt more-transparent and -consultative government. He told Time magazine that the country has "been hijacked by an intellectually brilliant elite that's dangerously ignorant about the economy." He notes that while the current government is made up largely of people who call themselves conservative, 80% of ministers have never worked at all in the private sector. The few who have "are tolerated, but shoved into subaltern posts."

Mr. Sarkozy acknowledges he is now part of the elites of French society, but he pledges he will govern in a way that is beyond their interests. "If I'm elected," he told reporters before yesterday's balloting, "it won't be the press, the polls, the elites. It will have been the people." His clearest break with much of French elite opinion came last week when he made a dramatic speech about a "moral crisis" the nation entered in 1968, when the "moral and intellectual relativism" embodied by the 1968 student revolt that helped topple President Charles de Gaulle from power the next year. Today, many philosophers and media commentators routinely pay homage to "the élan of 1968" and lament that the revolutionary spirit of the time did not succeed in transforming bourgeois French society more than it did.

Mr. Sarkozy took on that '60s nostalgia. He labelled Ms. Royal and her supporters the descendants of the nihilists of 1968, and even appealed to France's "silent majority" to repudiate the false lessons of that period. He claimed that too many Royal backers continue to hesitate in reacting against riots by "thugs, troublemakers and fraudsters." He declared this Sunday's election would settle the "question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all."

It appears that Mr. Sarkozy may have found the ultimate "wedge" issue in France, judging by the solid margin he won many traditional working-class neighborhoods that normally support Socialist candidates. Mr. Sarkozy's triumph provides at least a chance that there will be a real debate on the role of the state in France's economy and, yes, even some discussion of whether France should be in perpetual conflict with America.

With the victory last year of Angela Merkel, the pro-U.S. leader of Germany, and the impending changeover in power in Britain from pro-American Tony Blair to equally pro-American Labor leader Gordon Brown, there is also at least a chance that Europe will begin to address its problems straight on and avoid needless scapegoating of the U.S. With Mr. Sarkozy's victory, France's government looks like it will finally have some energetic adult supervision.