For almost 25 years, stubbornly high French unemployment has stood out like the Eiffel Tower – but as a symbol of national shame, not pride. France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, says the problem is a creaking social-welfare system, and he's determined to fix it. He may well succeed where others have failed.
Not only did Mr. Sarkozy decisively win his April election, but his conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, surpassed already upbeat expectations in the first round of parliamentary elections June 3. Even if voters have a change of heart before this Sunday's second and final round, the scrappy president will still have a strong mandate to proceed with his reforms.
This year, Sarkozy wants to reduce taxes, allow universities to open up to more students and to charge fees, reduce the national debt, overhaul costly public pensions, and – the big one – bring flexibility to the labor market. The latter is key to creating jobs in France, where unemployment has hovered at around 10 percent since 1984.
One reason Sarkozy has a better prospect of reviving his country – the sixth-largest economy in the world – is the clear advance notice he gave of his reform plans and the country's apparent acceptance of them. Like cooking-show host and chef great Jacques Pépin, Sarkozy laid out and explained the ingredients of his reform recipe for all of France to see: first in a readable book, "Testimony," then on the campaign trail.
That was not the case in the 2002 election, when incumbent president Jacques Chirac, also a reformer (of sorts) in the UMP, had to spend most of his campaign just trying to defeat right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Now that Sarkozy has his mandate, he plans to move swiftly – not one reform at a time, but on several fronts at once. Already this summer, the new parliament will meet in special session to work on tax cuts and an anticrime measure.
Both of those are popular with the public and show a French president keenly aware of the need to continue to build broad support even as he readies tougher measures. He's gotten off to a good start by appointing several members of the left to cabinet positions, of which about half are held by women – including one of North African origin, the new justice minister.
The big battles will be over university and labor reform, and students and unions are sure to resist. Indeed, highly disruptive street protests and strikes have halted reform attempts in the past. As the former interior minister, though, Sarkozy showed himself far less intimidated by the street than was his predecessor and boss, Mr. Chirac.
Sarkozy also appears to have thought through this dilemma by taking an approach that's not directly confrontational. He seems to accept public-worker strikes as a fact of life but is insisting that some minimum of public service be maintained. He won't overturn the mandatory 35-hour workweek, but wants to overcome its rigidity by making overtime pay tax-free to employers and by making it easier to hire and fire.
Now is the time for France to prove to its people and other reform-resistant countries in Europe that change is possible.