America, take notice: a 'change' president – in France

Sarkozy is delivering on his promise to break with the past.

Just over a year ago, France handily elected a new president on the promise of "rupture" from the past. After a rocky beginning, the fiery and energetic Nicolas Sarkozy is delivering. His track record is worth a look, especially by those Americans eager for a fresh start in their political leadership.

Granted, the comparison is imperfect. France and the United States have different political set-ups. Intransigent Marxist-oriented unions and an overweight social-welfare system and civil service have held France back and produced stubborn joblessness.

But through a series of taboo-breaking reforms, the Thatcheresque Sarkozy is succeeding in lightening this load. And while his ideas for change may not exactly match those of Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, his strategy merits consideration by the next Oval Office occupant.

First, this son of immigrants has stuck to his strategy of pursuing multiple reforms at once. A member of the center-right UMP party, Mr. Sarkozy did not want to repeat the mistake of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, a one-issue-at-a-time man. When Mr. Chirac met stiff opposition on his first big idea (public pension reform), he folded, and that weakened his presidency.

In contrast, Sarkozy, with the help of his majority in parliament, has made changes that open the French university system in admissions and private funding; increase the retirement age by a year; reduce the bloated public-sector workforce; cut red tape for businesses; and, most important, add flexibility to the labor force by loosening the sacrosanct 35-hour workweek.

George W. Bush, too, was a multitasker (as was Bill Clinton, even more so). In his first year he pushed through tax cuts, an education bill, and took America out of the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty. But 9/11 and a partisan divide turned his administration into a one-track one.

Second, Sarkozy coopted the political opposition. He made socialist Bernard Kouchner his foreign minister, and consulted with union leaders. In America, that's called bipartisanship (or in Clinton-speak: triangulation). On the other hand, it helps Sarkozy that the Socialists are in disarray, and that the unions are somewhat tepid in the face of his strong mandate.

Third, Sarkozy's shown persistence. He toughed out a transit strike over pension reform last fall – and won. And he's gradually moving forward with his change agenda despite abysmal approval ratings (the worst of any first-year French leader in the last 25 years). The sudden loss of public rapture is not because of rupture (the majority actually favor more change), but because of a flashy and gauche style and turbulent personal life. He's corked some of that fizz, but has yet to shake his nickname: "President Bling-Bling."

The way ahead for Sarkozy won't be easy. Unions still promise a fight (but not until after the August vacation), and the sour global economy and high fuel and food prices have put the French in a bad mood. Some economists believe the country is headed for recession. But France now enjoys the lowest unemployment in a quarter century and signs indicate that Sarkozy's economic reforms are working.

Yes, the next US president might do well to take a cue or two from the rupture president – minus the bling, of course.

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