This spring’s election may give France what it needs—real reform

MICHAEL PETROU January 22 2007


This spring’s election may give France what it needs—real reform

MICHAEL PETROU January 22 2007


This spring’s election may give France what it needs—real reform

BY MICHAEL PETROU • If there were ever a country in need of dramatic political renewal, it is France today.

One year after rioting youths in the mostly Muslim and ethnic-minority suburbs of Paris and other major cities torched some 10,000 vehicles and 300 buildings, arson attacks continue—although few pay much attention because the incidents now number in the dozens as opposed to the hundreds. Unemployment hovers just below nine per cent—a five-year low—but among young people, and especially among the sons and daughters of immigrants, the rate is double this and higher. Government attempts to introduce some tepid labour market reforms were scrapped in the face of massive street demonstrations. And Jacques Chirac, president since 1995, is perceived as lame and discredited after voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution, which he had championed.

The French have every right to feel cynical and fed up with their current crop of leaders. Next year’s presidential election appears to offer them something different. The two most likely front-runners—Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy—are unlike virtually any other leading figures in French politics today. By the Jurassic standards of French presidential candidates, both are relatively young: Sarkozy is 51; Royal is 53. Royal is drop-dead gorgeous and must be one of the few politicians whose political fortunes improved after she was photographed wearing a bikini. Sarkozy isn’t nearly as dashing, but he’s a stylish dresser and a dedicated fitness buff. Appearances only begin to describe what sets Royal and Sarkozy apart, though. Both are seen as outsiders who have brought a new style of folksy, personality-driven politics to France. Their campaigning approach could accurately be described as American.

Ségolène Royal is a walking affront to the old guard of her Socialist party. She has held relatively minor posts in government; her power base in Poitou-Charentes, where she is regional premier, is far from Paris; she has little experience on the international stage. It was felt, if never quite said, that Royal hadn’t put in her time or paid her dues; it wasn’t her turn. Occasionally the criticism turned nasty. Royal’s partner, and the father of her four children, is François Hollande, leader of the Socialist party. “Who’s going to watch the kids?” mused Faurent Fabius, a Royal rival for the

party’s presidential nomination who was prime minister of France two decades ago.

Royal deftly sidestepped this sort of jealous resentment from the party’s establishment. The grassroots loved her, and this is what mattered in the end. She won the nomination on Nov. 16 on the first ballot, taking more than 60 per cent of the vote—a triumph that only adds to the list of occasions in which

she has surpassed expectations. Those who sought to block her ascent might now best serve the party by offerto babysit.

Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire and minister of the interior in the current government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, is a virtual lock to secure the UMP’s nomination for president this week, and to oppose Royal in the April 22 election. Known simply as “Sarko”by many French, he is the son of a Hungarian immigrant father and a mother whose family included Sephardic Jews from Greece. Sarkozy grew up outside the privileged inner

circle of French society. Unlike Royal and most leading French politicians, he did not study at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, a training ground for top French civil servants.


Sarkozy is, however, a long-time politician who has developed a reputation as a scrappy and plain-spoken populist. While many French politicians tied themselves in knots trying to profess empathy for rioting suburban youth last fall, Sarkozy dismissed them as “rabble” and a “bunch of hoodlums,” and said that the suburbs needed to be washed out with industrial cleaner. This sort of rhetoric inspires both loathing and admiration in France. But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Sarkozy as a reactionary firebrand. Unlike most French politicians, he actually makes a point of regularly visiting the suburbs. And while he has cracked down on illegal immigration, he also favours positive discrimination to help ethnic-minority youths find jobs, and he has suggested that public funds could be used to support mosques in France.

According to Jack Veugelers, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and an expert on far-right politics in France, this leaves Sarkozy open to attacks from Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing National Front. However, Sarkozy only needs to finish second in the first round of balloting in order to contest the presidency in the second and final round in May. Le Pen may cost him some votes in the first round, but it is unlikely these will be enough to knock him into third place.

Internationally, Sarkozy seeks closer relations between France and the United States. “We must rebuild the transatlantic relation-

ship on the basis of trust and shared responsibility. I don’t want to see an arrogant France with a diminished presence,” he said earlier this year—and was promptly labelled George W. Bush’s poodle by his political opponents. Unlike other Atlanticist politicians, however, Sarkozy is opposed to Turkish membership in the European Union.

Sarkozy advocates liberalizing labour laws, and has criticized the 35-hour working week, noting that “those among you who would like to put butter in your spinach” should be allowed to work longer hours. But he also has a protectionist streak—perhaps necessary for an aspiring French politician. “You’re not talking about someone who is a liberal in the European sense,” says Martin Schain, a professor of politics at New York University, currently teaching in Paris. “No one in France would win an election who is a liberal in the European sense. It would be suicidal to build a campaign by taking on the unions.” The reforms Nicolas Sarkozy would impose on France would not be as radical as those of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, with whom he is often compared. But they would be substantial, and France would look much different at the end of a Sarkozy presidency than it does now.

Royal is much harder to pin down. On the

one hand, she too has questioned the sanctity of a short working week; she says she admires Tony Blair; and she said she opposes any Iranian nuclear program, whether it is for civilian use or not (a position she later amended, saying a civilian nuclear program would be acceptable if it was subject to spot checks by the United Nations). On the other hand, she met with a Hezbollah politician in Lebanon and, when the latter denounced America’s “unlimited insanity” for sending troops into Afghanistan and Iraq, she said she agreed

with his analysis. She later qualified her comments to say that she does not think all Americans are insane, and that she was only referring to George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq.

Gaffes such as these may simply be symptomatic of Royal’s growing pains as a serious politician. Until recently, she avoided saying anything of much substance, and is still frustratingly vague about her policies. Her propaganda and speeches are full of warm but vacant phrases. She says she wants to listen to voters, not dictate to them. When a journalist pressed Royal for more clarity earlier this year, she accused him of sexism, demanding: “Would you ask this of a man?”

So far, the French public doesn’t seem to mind. They’ve been increasingly infatuated with her for two years, and still her bubble shows no sign of bursting. But the presidential election is now only months away, and France has problems that are too serious to be overcome by just a winning personality. Sarkozy might be a divisive figure, but unless Royal does a better job of articulating what she stands for, she may find her rival becoming the next president of France. M