May 10, 2007


Can an American lead the French?: A malaise-ridden France just elected the most pro-American president in its history. But Nicolas Sarkozy's victory doesn't mean the French are eager to see their socialist perks disappear in a flurry of Anglo-Saxon reforms. France's new leader will need to be cunning, bold, and downright ruthless if he is to overcome the French resistance—and return his country to glory. (Patrick Belton, May 2007, Foreign Policy)

So what must he do? Lesson One he will draw from Reagan and Thatcher: Tame the public sector unions first. Look for him to start with the transport sector. He can’t get anything done without neutralizing the two major transport unions, so he may as well begin there. If Sarkozy can guarantee minimum train and bus service for two hours in the morning and evening, these unions can no longer exercise a veto by bringing France to its knees during rush hour. How can Sarkozy pull it off, if his predecessor Jacques Chirac couldn’t or didn’t dare? For one, Sarkozy was elected to do exactly this; he’s made his reformist intentions clear all along. (By contrast, Chirac was last elected solely for not being right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen.) Sarkozy will also have a strong majority in the Assembly after next month’s elections, led by a bruising legislative quarterback in prime minister-to-be François Fillon, a veteran of pension-trimming battles royale.

Once he sidelines the unions, Sarkozy will need to get France’s job engine humming by resurrecting the controversial First Employment Contract (Contrat Première Embauche). Known as the Kleenex contract to its opponents because it makes it possible to “discard” employees, it was announced last year but foundered during two months of student and union protest. Along with allowing companies to grow and shrink with the market, the idea is, if companies could fire workers who didn’t pan out, they might be more willing to hire them in the first place. [...]

But what of the resistance? Two groups will matter most: the students and the banlieues.

Students are historically the most ardent partisans of any ancien régime. Already, students at Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne have voted for a general strike and to block off their campus. Some of their more radicalized numbers ran riot on election night, leaving behind 730 burned cars in what is certainly not the last of student unrest. Nor is it their fault, wholly; they’re merely following textbook French economics. In a survey last year of popular undergraduate economics textbooks, the International Herald Tribune found one asking students, “Are there still enough jobs for everyone?” If not, the book says, the state should create them in the public sector. How can Sarkozy neutralize this constituency? Better to learn a lesson from the Maginot Line, and go around: Pass labor reforms over the summer, while students are at the beach.

Then, there are the banlieues. These suburban rings around Paris and other major cities are bleak places, dominated by stark housing projects where every expanse is entrapped by barbed wire. In October 2005, the accidental deaths of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois kindled three weeks of chaos in which 8,973 cars were burned and 2,888 rioters were arrested. Sarkozy, minister of the interior at that time, earned the bitter enmity of many in the banlieues for labeling the rioters “scum.”

Hated though he may be, Sarkozy is ironically the banlieues’ best hope of integration into the French mainstream. First, his tough talk has obscured his earlier record of conciliation. Until 2005, he was carving out a reputation as a mediator with the North African minority, creating a Muslim council for dialogue with the government and calling for relaxing French secular traditions to permit state aid to build mosques (so Muslims need not look abroad for money). He’s likely to appoint his campaign spokeswoman, Rachida Dati, who is of North African descent, to lead the proposed new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. Second, Sarkozy’s message of moral responsibility and authority resonates in many quarters of the banlieues. And most importantly, Sarkozy’s focus on jobs and growth addresses the banlieues’ main problem: unemployment. Thus, a tough, but fair and hopeful message coupled with a growing economy is Sarkozy’s ticket to rapprochement with the banlieues.

The repeated estimate that France's problems are a couple decades old makes one despair for the possibility that the real ones will be dealt with.

Danger man?: The one thing everybody knew they would get from Nicolas Sarkozy was change. So no one will be surprised if the new French president goes into pitched battle with the trade unions and gets tough on immigration. He might even fall out with Gordon. (David Lawday, 14 May 2007, New Statesman)

Danger man! Brute! Chancer! Epithets that cling to the diminutive president-elect - mostly thrown by the humbled left, it must be said - have actually served to promote his cause: a break with past political thinking and with a national aversion to risk.

If this Thatcher-in-trousers is heading into an inevitable confrontation with the unions, no one can say he hasn't prepared France for the scrap. He will amend the 35-hour working week so that it is no longer the reposeful regulation it implies; he will force strikers to maintain a minimum service for trains, buses and other public services to prevent the total standstills to which France is wearily accustomed; he will slice into the bloated state bureaucracy, where the unions are strongest, by permitting one replacement for every two retiring government office workers. As a prospective union tamer, he has to contend not so much with the size of union membership (the numbers are proportionately smaller than in Britain), but with the benefit-driven French culture that the unions resolutely uphold.

Roughly stated, President Sarkozy's goal for the French is: put aside the welfare culture, work more, earn more and thereby enrich the country, thus creating more jobs. The accent is on the value of hard work and getting up early to start it. He and his supporters have coined a wonderfully bleak word for work-shyness that hardly needs translating - assistanat. Sarkozy's France is poised to remove equality and perhaps fraternity from the illustrious triad formed in 1789.

His is a free-market, self-responsibility venture that he claims every advanced country in Europe, from Britain to those in Scandinavia, and lately Germany, has adopted to its advantage. In this sense, he represents not so much novelty as catch-up politics with a conservative twist. Long ago, when he first started planning his assault on the presidency, he provoked fellow conser vatives by saying that the traditional "French model", pursued to differing degrees by both left and right, no longer worked. His iconoclastic solution: "When something doesn't work, change to something that does."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 10, 2007 7:46 PM

Keywords: a growing economy

Actually, the first thing is to junk their stupid economic text book. They have been training generations of air heads. Even the red Chinese know that creating jobs in the public sector is a stupid idea.

Posted by: ic at May 10, 2007 9:19 PM