France has a new President and the promise of a new direction.
Nicolas Sarkozy, as many had predicted, has gained a significant electoral victory to become the President of France. He takes office on the 16th May. Given the intense and even exciting competition between Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, the participation rate was unusually high. The margin in favor of Sarkozy was significant, giving him a very clear mandate for change. What does this mean for Sarkozy’s presidency and for France?
The high electoral turnout and the significant margin Sarkozy gained over Royal suggests that the public have understood that if France is to restore economic growth and lower its high rate of unemployment, change is necessary. Youth unemployment is as much as 25% in some places. The election was not about change as such, for all of the main contenders called for reform, but about the type of change needed to cure France’s social ills. Royal’s proposal was socially focused and welfare oriented. Sarkozy pushed for what can be called ‘market-friendly reforms’ that suggested to his opponents the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (an easy term of abuse in left-wing and nationalist circles in France) policies of Margaret Thatcher and her successors. With a majority of French voters putting unemployment at the top of their concerns, Sarkozy has been given electoral backing for his ideas of structural reform, increased labor market flexibility and reduced taxation. The moral crisis in France according to Sarkozy ‘is a crisis of work’.
Can he deliver? Sarkozy is a man who has long been driven by the desire to be President of France. He is known to be focused, abrasive and capable of tremendous stamina in pursuit of his objectives. Though young by the standards of the French Presidency, Sarkozy is hugely experienced. He entered politics at the age of twenty-two and soon became mayor of a significant Parisian suburb. His tough language as Interior Minister upset many but seems to have added to his reputation as someone willing to take unpopular decisions. Of his energy and focus there is no doubt. His message is simple: reduce the number of bureaucrats; restore the links between incentives and work; attract foreign investment; increase social mobility and help minorities into the labor market. With the plus of a significant victory and a clear set of objectives, Sarkozy will attempt to do just as he has said.
France is fickle. Many on the left see Sarkozy as power-hungry and even talk of him as an ‘American neo-con’. Royal, rather than mentioning him by name, repeatedly called him ‘the candidate of the right’ during her final electioneering drive and called him ‘dangerous’. The Trade Union movement is strong in France and militant. Sarkozy will need to find a way to initiative his reforms whilst keeping the country with him. Sarkozy’s objectives are clear and simple but social resistance is likely to be high as any reforms bite in. The objectives are simple but the politics will be turbulent. Think of the short-term consequences of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom. What will be required is drive and energy — Sarkozy has these in abundance— but also consummate political skill.