"The people of France have chosen change," incoming President Nicolas Sarkozy exulted in his victory speech May 6. With voters firmly backing this new-generation reformer, it appears so. But are appearances deceiving?
Inside and outside France, it's obvious that the world's sixth-largest economy needs change. And soon. France has plummeted to 19th place in per capita income. It staggers under chronic high joblessness and lackluster growth. It has lost star power on the world stage, playing less of an affirmative leadership role and more of a blocking one ("non" to the European Union constitution; "non" to the US in Iraq; "non" to trade concessions).
For France, Mr. Sarkozy will be an anomaly as president. The son of an immigrant, he's not the product of elite schools but of the tottering state university system. A maverick, straight-talking conservative, like John McCain in 2000, he bucked against the elite of his Union for a Popular Movement party – including outgoing President Jacques Chirac.
His proposed reforms are refreshing and necessary: relaxed labor laws, lower taxes, a slimmed down bureaucracy – to name a few.
But do the French really want such change? They rejected the candidate who promised to safeguard welfare protections, Ségolène Royal. Yet 12 years ago, Mr. Chirac was also considered the candidate of reform, and his efforts were shut down by strikes, protests, and a reticent parliament. It seems the French want change so that life in the unaffordable social welfare state can stay the same.
In his memoir, "Testimony," Sarkozy strenuously disagrees. "The French are not afraid of change," he writes. "It's politics that has gradually become sclerotic...."
Chirac's problem was that he rolled out his reform agenda slowly, then naturally met resistance after the first effort, states Sarkozy, who believes in an all-at-once method. Others point out that Sarkozy is not afraid of "the street."
That last point may be a plus – if he gets a parliament that backs him in next month's elections. But his political spine, so evident as a tough-on-crime interior minister, could also work against him. Sarkozy is a polarizing figure. He's especially feared by immigrants, mostly Muslims, who rioted in 2005. Protesters clashed violently with police at news of his election. He must bridge this gap, with words and job creation.
Sarkozy has also promised greater global leadership, better using France's historic authority in the UN, NATO, EU, Africa, and the Middle East. He rejects an almost automatic anti-US stand. "America can count on our friendship," he said Sunday.
But that won't mean easy accommodation with Washington. Sarkozy may be a friend of Israel, and may agree with President Bush to "leave all options open" for diplomacy with Iran to work. But his favorable views toward trade protectionism and his thumbs down to Turkey in the EU contrast with the US.
It's likely that Sarkozy will concentrate on France's neighborhood, Europe. His plan to rescue the proposed EU constitution by greatly streamlining it and then sending it to the French parliament for approval could help push it through other doubtful countries. In this way, France could indeed lead.
Sarkozy is alive with big ideas. But whether the French really want them is an unanswered question.