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Who Is Sarkozy?


Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s new president, addressed the US Congress on November 7, with his divorce behind him and with the satisfaction of two recent and considerable political accomplishments. The first was his success, in mid-October, in dealing with the first concerted challenge to his presidency—strikes by transport and other unions, accompanied by mass public demonstrations. The second was the European Union’s adoption, at its meeting in Lisbon the same day, of the shortened and simplified union treaty Sarkozy has promoted since becoming president. At an earlier EU meeting in June he had produced the compromise that appeased Poland and let the draft treaty go forward, to replace the elaborate constitutional treaty rejected two years ago by referendums in France and the Netherlands.

His divorce, announced the same day the strikes took place, was not one he wanted, and was of political significance because Cécilia, his companion and wife of the last nineteen years, was closer to him than anyone else, accompanying his ascent from mayor of the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly to France’s presidency. She was constantly at his side, traveling with him, telephoning, advising him, sharing and managing his office when he finally became a cabinet minister. She was not popular with his colleagues, but Cécilia was said to be “the nonnegotiable part of working for Sarkozy.”

She left him two years ago. “I met someone, I fell in love, I left,” she said. (It had been the same when she left her first marriage for Sarkozy.) This time Sarkozy won her back. However, she had said, “First Lady? Ça me rase [that bores me]. Je suis politiquement incorrect.” So it happened. The press has described her as “blunt, chilly, bewitching.” The less bewitched offer other descriptions, noting that she herself has said of Sarkozy, “I am his Achilles’ heel.”

He told a journalist from Le Monde, “I was elected by the French people to solve their problems, not comment on my private life…. It interests them much less than you, and they are right. Perhaps they have a greater sense of propriety and more discretion, sir.” This is what he had already told Lesley Stahl when she interviewed him, rashly thinking that he would tell CBS what he adamantly refused to tell the French press. He walked out of the interview.

Marches and demonstrations have always been part of the French political process, or even the dialogue, and there is a threshold beyond which a prudent government does not go in resisting demands backed by large demonstrations of popular discontent. However, France has the lowest rate of unionization in the European Union—7 percent—lower than in the United States, and membership is concentrated in the state administrations, notably the energy sector, the schools, and public transportation. Union power rests in the ability to close down transport or disrupt electricity supplies, blackmailing government by inflicting public inconvenience and distress, and disrupting business and industry. Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory last spring was widely taken as a mandate for change in this, as in other matters.

Following the summer break, he was everywhere on radio, television, and in the papers, issuing near-daily propositions for remaking France’s economic policy, labor relations, social insurance regime, employment policy, thirty-five-hour work week, university system, secondary education, NATO and defense policies, approaches to Iran and Darfur, relations with the United States, European Central Bank currency policy, the European Union constitutional treaty—as well as rescuing the Bulgarian nurses being held in Libya.1 The sheer number of his proposals strengthened him for the foreseen challenge by the unions. They were confused about where best to attack.

His success in dealing with the strikes was the result of factors curiously underestimated by the unions and much of the press. One was that talks with the train-drivers’ union had begun before the strikes started, and agreement with them brought the strikes to an end. Sarkozy is not a man who wants confrontation; he wants agreements.

The main transport and energy industry unions presented the strike as a preemptive blow against the entire array of social reforms Sarkozy had proposed. Their more fanciful leaders thought they could repeat the strikes lasting several weeks in 1997 that brought down the unpopular and obstinate government of Jacques Chirac’s protégé, Alan Juppé, precipitating legislative elections. The unions’ specific intention was to force Sarkozy to withdraw his proposal to eliminate certain special retirement benefits that are now widely regarded as obsolete and unfair. Most were granted to workers who had what in the past were seen as dangerous or exhausting jobs. (Early retirement was granted to locomotive engineers in the era of steam.) The unions underestimated popular support for this reform, their position being that the only acceptable change to any social gain by labor is extension of the same privilege to everyone else.

There was, in Paris, a very large and cheerful march in support of the unions on a sunny day, led by banners saying “All Together for Salaries, Jobs, Retirement, Social Protection, Public Service!” Bringing up the rear was a banner demanding “Save Our Universities!” Train and urban transport was widely interrupted, with the negative effect of reminding the public of probably the most popular reform of all those on Sarkozy’s agenda. This measure, which already has passed the National Assembly and goes into effect in January, requires reliable advance notice of transport interruptions, with a legally enforceable provision of minimum train, bus, and subway service. This reform poses a major threat to union power.

At the end of the strike day, the engineers’ union (the train drivers) went back to work. Calls by minority unions to continue the strike disrupted suburban rail traffic in some areas, and sporadically affected other trains in France, but there was no national blockage, and Sarkozy’s proposal was not withdrawn. Most transportation was restored in time for the final matches in Paris that weekend of the Rugby Union World Cup, where France played Argentina for third place, and lost a dramatic game.2

Several French Railways unions say they will strike again on November 13, but the united front has been broken. Sarkozy’s dexterous handling of his first confrontation with the unions demonstrated his professionalism as a politician—he has never had another job. During the summer, he was in touch with the unions (inviting them to discussions at his office in the Élysée Palace—something never done before), his message being that the electorate demanded certain reforms and he had been elected to provide them, but that he would prefer cooperation to force. (He was saying, in effect, “One of us has to be reasonable; in present circumstances, it better be you.”) The power to shut down national transport is the ultimate sanction the unions possess, and no one expects it to be easily yielded. It may be tested again when the law comes into force in 2008; but the weight of public opinion will determine who finally will be “reasonable.”

Sarkozy dazzled the press and the public following his election last May by forming a government including Socialists, centrists, and an unprecedented number of women and persons of immigrant origin. Naming several prominent Socialists to important posts, including Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, he greatly damaged a party already weakened by rivalry over its presidential nomination and the refusal of Ségolène Royal, the eventual candidate, to run on the orthodox party platform. Royal continues to be attacked by other Socialist figures for having lost the election, thereby preventing them from doing so.

A quarter-century ago François Mitterrand created the modern French left, rescuing the Socialist Party from minority irrelevance by forming a common electoral program with the Communists. The alliance succeeded in taking power in 1981. This robbed the Communists of what the advertising industry would have called their unique selling proposition, revolution, beginning a Communist decline that by now is near terminal. In the 1980s, the Socialist Jacques Delors, made finance minister, rescued Mitterrand’s government, which had been foundering in economic difficulties, by introducing “market socialist” reforms designed to liberalize the French economy. However, Delors has retired, Mitterrand is gone, and his legitimate successor, ex–prime minister Lionel Jospin, has been reduced to writing a spiteful and distressingly ungentlemanly book about how Ségolène Royal stole his party and robbed him of the presidential nomination.3

No one can be confident that the Socialists will be in any condition to mount a serious national challenge when the opportunity comes in five years. Several of the Socialist “elephants” beaten by Ségolène Royal for last year’s nomination are on the way to the political graveyard. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once a favorite, now has global horizons, thanks to Sarkozy’s nomination of him to head the International Monetary Fund in Washington. The unfortunate François Hollande, the dignified estranged father of Royal’s children, will leave the party secretary post but still hopes to become the Socialist presidential candidate in 2012. The remaining failed candidate for the party’s presidential nomination, Laurent Fabius, who claims to lead the Socialist left, is likely to be overrun by a younger group of militants, some from the Trotskyist “left of the left,” others followers of Ségolène Royal. Jack Lang, Mitterrand’s flamboyant minister of culture, considered a Sarkozy appointment or ambassadorship before announcing that he would not serve a government of whose immigration and fiscal policy he disapproved.

Royal retains the presidency of the region of Poitou-Charentes and is the only major Socialist to indicate a new party direction, toward a centrist alliance, as the Italian left has just done, breaking with the post-Marxist shibboleths of revolutionary change. She is described by admirers as possessing “the most powerful charisma of any Socialist in fifty years,” and polls now make her France’s favorite to challenge Sarkozy in 2012.4

Confidence in Sarkozy remains high (56 percent in the regular end-of-October poll). In a poll published in late September, belief in his “sincerity” had gone up by thirty-five points among those who voted for Ségolène Royal. A majority of respondents approved nine out of the ten social reform proposals Sarkozy has identified as most important. He lost points in overall approval, but among what pollsters identify as the less-well-off (moins privilégié) categories of the population he enjoyed more support than among the more well-to-do, his presumed natural constituency.

On the reforms the Socialist opposition characterizes as “anti-social,” meaning harmful to the less well-off, the polls indicate that the less-well-off classes actually support Sarkozy. These reforms include sanctions for the unemployed who refuse two job offers, modification of the thirty-five-hour work week to allow unlimited paid overtime, and “reemphasis on the value of work.”5

His immigration policy produced a brief protest when his reform bill was amended to allow DNA testing. This was criticized on the left (and by a member of his own cabinet of immigrant origin). The bill, as amended, permits the applicant for French residents to demand a DNA test (at French expense) to demonstrate mother-child relationship. Since such virtuous states as Norway, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands already use DNA testing, the legislation easily passed in both the National Assembly and the Senate.

  1. 1

    A Romanian journalist, Cristina Hermezlu, wrote that she was reminded of a joke from the days of the Ceausåüescu dictatorship in her country: “If you plugged in the iron, you found yourself hearing them” (Courier International, Paris, September 13–19, 2007).

  2. 2

    A week later a nasty dispute involving cabin-crew wages disrupted Air France traffic, just as people were departing for the fall school holidays. However the breakdown in lengthy negotiations had nothing to do with Sarkozy, and talks have resumed.

  3. 3

    L’Impasse (Paris: Flammarion, 2007).

  4. 4

    The magazine Marianne, October 15– 21, 2007.

  5. 5

    Le Figaro, September 24, 2007.

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