Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy is the new president of France. The former interior minister bested Ms. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, in the second round of the election with 53 percent of votes cast. France is bracing for real change, with the president-elect promising a package of reforms within 100 days of taking office. But redirecting the country is no done deal: Unions have vowed to protect their prerogatives and the French people may yet decide that they are not prepared for Mr. Sarkozy’s overhaul.
The new president is the face of a new generation in France. Mr. Sarkozy is an outsider, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, and the first French president to have been born after World War II. He is an energetic and ambitious man who has never backed away from a challenge.
He campaigned on a platform that promised to revitalize France by cutting taxes, shrinking government and introducing more flexibility into the labor market, one of the most tightly regulated in the world. He has been described by media on the left as “Thatcher without the skirts,” referring both to her unwavering commitment to painful economic reform and a readiness to court the anger of opponents during that effort.
The violence that greeted Mr. Sarkozy’s victory — there were two nights of sporadic demonstrations across the country — is an indication that his reforms will be challenged. Neither were his critics mollified by his promise to act in the best interests of all French, not just those who voted for him. But the size of his victory — he claimed nearly 19 million votes — and the near-record turnout of 84 percent will allow him to claim a mandate.
His first step, however, will be winning a parliamentary majority in elections next month. Polls show his UMP party ahead of the Socialists, with 34 percent to their 29 percent. In addition, his team is reportedly promising other members of centrist and right-leaning parties to not run UMP candidates against them if they promise to support his program. Some of those who voted for Mr. Sarkozy may not in fact back his party; many voters were uncomfortable with Ms. Royal as president, feeling she may not have had the experience or the poise necessary to lead the nation. Those voters are likely to return to their old camps in the next ballot.
Mr. Sarkozy’s image took an early beating when press reports showed him vacationing after the election victory on the luxury yacht of a supporter. That will confirm for many that his real sympathies lie with the moneyed classes and is sure to galvanize the opposition. One union has already warned Mr. Sarkozy that it will fight any attempt to push through change without appropriate consultation. He is well aware that union opposition has blocked his predecessors’ attempts to push reform; the current president, Mr. Jacques Chirac, tried a similarly bold move when he took office in 1995 and was forced to retreat in the face of determined union opposition. Then again, that is just the sort of challenge Mr. Sarkozy thrives upon.
On foreign policy, Mr. Sarkozy promised to heal the rift in relations with the United States. He is a longtime admirer of the U.S., but he also warned that he will make the fight against global warming France’s “first struggle” and Washington cannot impede that effort. Closer to home, Mr. Sarkozy has said he would reinvigorate the European Union, but also said the EU must do more to help its citizens deal with the impact of globalization.
The French people were offered a fairly straightforward choice in the presidential ballot. Ms. Royal believed in the traditional left solution to economic stagnation: more government and more insulation from market forces. Mr. Sarkozy promised to trim government intrusions into daily life and to “rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit.” If implemented, these are radical changes for a country that has been habituated to egalitarianism.
That alone will make his job difficult. But Mr. Sarkozy has been indifferent to how he is perceived, proving ready to alienate and bulldoze opponents. In 2005, he called rioters in Paris suburbs — many of them immigrants — “scum,” setting off the worst violence in France for nearly four decades. The new president will need to be much more sensitive about his choice of words so as not to exacerbate the challenges he faces.
Mr. Sarkozy may have promised that a vote for him was a vote for change, but French voters may decide that they are more enamored with the image of change than its reality. If so, the new president will need all his political skills, acumen and stamina to administer the medicine he believes his country needs.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.