WARSAW — Is France about to exchange the fake revolution of May 1968 for a sham counter-revolution this year, or have the French given Nicolas Sarkozy a mandate for real change to modernize their country?
Why has Sarkozy won election as France’s president, and what are the likely consequences of his victory for France, Europe and the world?
Above all, Sarkozy won because, while some who voted for him may have feared that he was “too much” in terms of personality, many more believed that Segolene Royal was simply “too little” in terms of gravitas — an impression more confirmed than dissipated by their one face-to-face debate. Royal’s failure, despite her energy and determination, was not because she is a woman, but in spite of it.
In 1968, after 10 years of President Charles de Gaulle, and in the midst of a period of strong growth and full employment, the French were bored. Today, after 12 years of President Jacques Chirac and 14 years of President Francois Mitterrand, with a growth rate lower than most of Europe and a level of debt and unemployment higher than most, France is worried about decline and ripe for reform.
What Sarkozy understood better than anyone is that, 39 years after May 1968, France is in the mood for work, not love.
Most voters who backed Sarkozy expect a different sort of state, one that is more capable of providing physical security against violence and less capable of complicating their lives in economic and fiscal terms. This France endorses Sarkozy with enthusiasm; others view him as the unpleasant but necessary medicine France needs to cure its malaise.
Royal’s last-minute warnings that France would explode as a result of Sarkozy’s election were neither serious nor dignified. Yet France is a deeply divided country and a difficult one to reform. It is not the Britain of the 1970s, a country that truly had nothing to lose by taking Margaret Thatcher’s harsh road of structural change. From their unique lifestyle to their still efficient public services, the French know that their country is not performing so badly. But, with a mixture of moroseness and voluntary submission, they now know that they must face their limitations.
Sarkozy has less than six months to implement the key reforms necessary if France wants to catch up with Europe’s growth leaders. For that to happen, he needs a parliamentary majority, which he should get in the upcoming legislative elections.
But most of all, Sarkozy needs the French to be coherent about themselves. To achieve this, he must rally the positive energies that brought him to power, without inflaming the negative energies that will gather to resist change.
Indeed, this will be Sarkozy’s main challenge. He demonstrated his pedagogic talents during the campaign. But firmness must be accompanied by a strong sense of respect for all those, particularly in the immigrant community, who did not vote for him. To win, he exploited the fears of a large part of the electorate; to succeed, he must instill hope.
For Europe, Sarkozy’s election is not a bad omen. While the European Union’s problems will not be resolved because France has a new president, Sarkozy’s vision of a simplified constitutional treaty to replace the draft that French and Dutch voters rejected in 2005 is more realistic than Royal’s call for a new referendum.
A few years ago, Sarkozy alluded to a Club of Six to guide Europe. But Poland has excluded itself from the countries that matter politically, and leaders in Italy and Spain openly campaigned for Royal. The seemingly euro-skeptic Gordon Brown is about to replace Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain. So the Franco-German alliance will resume a leading role, if only by default.
Of course, Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not reproduce the special alliances of Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, or Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. But the future of Europe will once more depend largely on the governments in Berlin and Paris.
That said, Sarkozy’s victory will not make a huge difference for the world beyond Europe. While Chirac took a keen interest in world affairs, Sarkozy, by both inclination and political calculus, will concentrate, at least initially — and in the absence of a major international crisis — on internal matters. Even in trans-Atlantic relations, change will be more a matter of style than content.
Yet Sarkozy’s international influence has already been felt in the case of Turkey. The combination of his clear opposition to Turkey’s admission to the EU and uncertainty about the ultimate agenda of the Islamist party in power there has contributed, at least in part, to the current Turkish crisis. Why should the opposing forces in Turkey behave with restraint if the moderating prospect of EU membership no longer exists?
France has a unique opportunity to adjust itself to the necessity of reform. The French people have demonstrated maturity. But Sarkozy will have to act responsibly in proving that he really can change the country and reconcile the French with themselves and with France’s position in a globalized world.
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