The scenario for the 2007 French presidential election was written by the foreign press and embassies before it happened. France was said to be experiencing “malaise” and decline, mired in ineffectual resistance to market economics, low growth, and high youth unemployment because of its failure to integrate its African and North African immigrants. Its economy was said to be blocked by union power and an overmanned administrative apparatus hostile to initiative. Hiring was so costly as to discourage expansion; success in business was exorbitantly taxed, forcing the rich to leave for Brussels and the ambitious young for London.

France, moreover, practiced a protectionism out of touch with global realities and its businesses were uncompetitive, other than in luxury goods. It had lost its influence in Europe through a sterile foreign policy of “grandeur” and opposition to the United States.

The election would be won by Nicolas Sarkozy, the attractive, aggressively ambitious, and hyperactive young politician who favored both American market economics and affirmative action for immigrants. Running against him was Ségolène Royal, a flaky Socialist beauty who thought she was Joan of Arc, an unmarried mother of four, inventor of a new populism that commanded little sympathy among the Socialist Party’s leaders, whom she had outmaneuvered or defeated in televised party primaries, winning the party nomination by overwhelming vote of its active supporters.

Most on the left believed her to be a closet rightist because she resisted party shibboleths and was a professional soldier’s estranged daughter who proposed boot camps for delinquents and had “La Marseillaise” sung at her campaign rallies. She was held to have no chance of winning the election because she made gaffes, particularly when traveling abroad, was no close student of international affairs, and had a temperament that would undoubtedly cause her to self-destruct; and moreover the French are political misogynists.

Neither did the other main challenger, François Bayrou, have a chance to win. He had emerged from obscurity when Royal’s poll results showed that Sarkozy could be beaten, although not perhaps by her. He was a churchgoing former classics teacher, now a horse breeder, who had taken up centrist politics as a follower of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s. He was regarded as an eccentric for thinking that France wished to be governed from the center. Everyone on the governing right and the Socialist left believed in a France coupé en deux, with no room in the middle.

And so it now has all come to pass as predicted—more or less—with Sarkozy winning by 53 to 47 percent. Royal did well among the young, winning 60 percent of voters between eighteen and twenty-four, 54 percent of those between twenty-five and thirty-four, and 51 percent of those between thirty-five and forty-nine. Sarkozy had a large majority among voters who were fifty and older, winning 63 percent of the vote of retirees. Among artisans, shopkeepers, and the heads of businesses he won 82 percent. He also did well among those with very low monthly incomes (less than 800 euros) and those with higher incomes (over 1,500 euros) although the differences were nowhere very great. The only income category in which there was more than a 10 percent difference each way was those with incomes over 3,000 euros a month, meaning everyone with middle-class incomes and above—and there the vote was only 57 percent Sarkozy and 43 percent Royal.

The element absent from the predicted scenario is that the “malaise” supposedly gripping France has political rather than economic origins. The economic difficulties are well known and soluble. The result of the election has bestowed on France the first frankly rightist government it has had since World War II, and devastated a Socialist Party gripped in myth and denial, opening the way to a possible reconstruction of the left on modern social-democratic terms, or as a center-left coalition.

Just before the student revolts (and accompanying events) of May 1968, Le Monde famously wrote that the country had become bored—“la France s’ennuie.” That boredom returned to France during the years leading up to this election. This is essential to an understanding of what has happened. The presidential campaign and election have now relieved the French of their boredom. No one can say that Nicolas Sarkozy is boring, nor is Ségolène Royal. Nor is France itself boring any longer; it could become quite exciting.

Its electoral events have been a leading story on international television and in the international press for a month, and even brought Washington columnists to Paris, Washington itself having become the boring place, with blocked politics and declining fortunes. Except that Washington now is haunted by human tragedy, whereas what has happened in France has been near enough to farce as to be great fun, as even the French concede. Sarkozy’s worst enemy would not trade him for Bush.


The French malaise has been a bad case of political frustration, which ended the moment the presidential campaign began. There was a national political mobilization producing 3.3 million new voter registrations, the most in a quarter-century, with particularly high numbers in immigrant neighborhoods. In both rounds of the two-stage election the voter turnout was approximately 85 percent of France’s 44 million eligible voters. The television debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, held before the second round of voting, was watched by 20 million people, in a country whose total population of all ages—infants, invalids, the blind and the deaf included—is 62 million.

This mobilization was inspired by a nearly unanimous desire to put an end to the immobility that has gripped French politics since March 1986, when the Socialist President François Mitterrand, his party defeated in mid-term elections, and the young neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac betrayed the spirit of the Fifth Republic constitution by agreeing to collaborate in governing the country. They launched “cohabitation.”

This installed complicity among the major parties and a structure of governmental irresponsibility that persisted through three episodes of cohabitation, occupying nearly half of the twenty-one years since the practice began. Five years ago, the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years by bipartisan agreement. This further diminished the symbolic and real power of the president. He was no longer an ultimate arbiter, aloof from the everyday workings of transient governments. A fundamental feature of the constitution had been that it set seven-year and five-year intervals, respectively, between presidential and parliamentary elections, in order to prevent concurrent terms. The constitution’s authors believed this essential to the distinct authority and autonomy of the president—the head of state—and the prime minister—head of government, accountable to the National Assembly.

The change from a seven-year to a five-year term in practice gave France a new kind of president, who is now effectively the head of both government and state, a change reflected in Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign promise to play a dynamic presidential role on the American model, annually delivering a version of a state of the union address. It has also promoted the personalizing of presidential campaigns and office, in which the emphasis of press and television fosters a contest of personalities, rather than of competitive political projects and reasoned debate, always the republican ideal.1

France’s political stagnation has also been the result of the advancing age and seeming immutability of the political class. Chirac came onto the national scene in 1974. Lionel Jospin, the last Socialist prime minister and unsuccessful 2002 presidential candidate, together with nearly all of today’s (or as it now may be, yesterday’s) other leading Socialist figures, became prominent during the two presidential terms of François Mitterrand, beginning in 1981.

This actually was true even of Ségolène Royal, now fifty-three, who remained sufficiently inconspicuous in her political debut under Mitterrand as never to become one of the party’s notables, or so-called “elephants”—whom she was eventually to humiliate this year.2

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now fifty-two, was not so inconspicuous. He was the mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly at the age of twenty-eight, after defeating a major “historic” Gaullist figure, Charles Pasqua, whose service to Gaullism went back to the Resistance. Elected to the National Assembly, Sarkozy was taken up by Jacques Chirac and by another senior figure, Édouard Balladur, who became François Mitterrand’s prime minister during the second cohabitation (1993–1995). Sarkozy served as Balladur’s budget minister. In 1995 he joined Balladur when the latter decided to challenge Chirac, his “friend of thirty years,” for the presidency—and lost.

This was Sarkozy’s first venture into what may be called the big time, and left him with a reputation in political circles, but not a particularly good one. However, in this youthful betrayal of Chirac he was following in his mentor’s footsteps, since Chirac’s career began and progressed by successive betrayals of Jacques Chaban-Delmas, “legitimate” Gaullist candidate for the presidency following the death of Georges Pompidou, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, beneficiary of the betrayal of Chaban-Delmas. In 1981 Chirac told his followers to abstain from voting for a second term for Giscard, thereby contributing to the election of François Mitterrand, whom he expected to fail to obtain reelection in 1988. But the betrayal unexpectedly paid off in 1986, when Mitterrand, after a Socialist defeat in legislative elections, made Chirac his prime minister, thereby inaugurating the era of cohabitation.

After the first round of voting this year, it came out that in 2004, while Sarkozy was still number two in the Chirac government, he suggested to Bayrou that the two “play the youth card” against Chirac, “to make him seem démodé—too old.” Bayrou says that he said no. Sarkozy denies the conversation.3


These sub-Shakespearean regicides eventually led Chirac to the Élysée Palace, as they had led others before him. However Chirac was an insider who followed the orthodox political track of military service (in the Algerian war), “Sciences Po,” and the École Nationale d’Administration, the principal training ground of French political elites, including Ségolène Royal herself. Sarkozy is an outsider, who went to a mere university (second choice for the politically ambitious) and became a lawyer with a job in the Neuilly mayor’s office.

The family history by now is well known: Sarkozy’s Hungarian refugee father married a French law student, daughter of a physician and granddaughter of a Jewish immigrant (at the age of fourteen) who had converted to Catholicism to please his French wife. Nicolas’s parents were married in 1950. A son, Guillaume, was born in 1951, Nicolas in 1955, and a third son, François, in 1957. (The brothers did not learn of their part-Jewish ancestry until the 1970s, after their grandfather’s death.) The father then moved on to other alliances and adventures, leaving the mother “without moral or financial help,” déclassé in the manner of the day, suffering the social obloquy of divorce.4

Nicolas grew up as a fatherless foreigner whose two brothers were taller and better in school than he was. He later said, “I was fashioned by the humiliations of childhood.” He today remains very close to his mother. There was a “normal” family he visited during the summers, with an established social position, a father and mother living together, and children including a son his age. The son later said, “At fourteen I saw Nicolas’s motivation develop. He spoke to me always of revenge, and I couldn’t understand why.” Nicolas decided very early to become president of the French Republic.

His father had not disappeared, merely remarried (he was to do so twice5 ), and became a business success. But when Nicolas’s maternal grandfather died, and his mother had to move the boys to an apartment in the suburb of Neuilly and needed money, her ex-husband’s visible wealth vanished and the court to which his mother appealed could find no assets to award as augmented support. Nicolas then was eighteen, and at the court remonstrated with his father, who snatched his arm away, saying, “I owe you nothing.” His biographer, Catherine Nay, writes that his friends all remember his subsequent violent, even obsessional hatred of his father.6


Sarkozy cannot be identified with any of the major rightist currents in the French past.7 He is not a Gaullist (even if his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, UMP, is commonly called Gaullist; it broke with the Gaullist tradition long ago). Sarkozy’s concerns have never been the great Gaullist themes of France’s unique destiny, and he seems indifferent to the geopolitical concerns of De Gaulle.

He is not really an economic liberal in the European sense either, pro-business and a free-trade advocate—as in the liberal parties across Europe. He advocates some deregulation of the French labor market, cuts in bureaucracy, and reduction of debt, but he also believes in “economic patriotism” and government interventions in industries important to the French economy. As economics minister, he arranged the state rescue of Alstom, France’s huge power and high-speed rail manufacturing conglomerate. He has also said that it was a mistake for France to have allowed the Indian Mittal Steel group to buy Arcelor, the French-owned Franco-Belgian steel giant. He wants the European Central Bank to be required to respect European political and industrial interests in setting interest rates.

He certainly does not belong to the old French reactionary tradition of family-work-religion, anti-republicanism, and xenophobic nationalism, nor to the boisterous modern manifestation of that tradition in the party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. In his election campaign, he efficiently destroyed Le Pen as a political force in France by restating Le Pen’s themes, such as his opposition to illegal immigrants, in more acceptable form and stealing Le Pen’s votes. (Le Pen was eliminated with some 11 percent of the first-round vote—his lowest result in twenty-five years.)

Sarkozy is not a religious conservative, a defender of the natural order, hostile to money values, capitalism, and modern secularism. Yet as the campaign drew toward its end he repeatedly denounced the influence of “1968,” saying in his last big campaign speech a week before the final vote that the “events” of 1968 had “made the difference disappear between good and evil, between true and false, between the beautiful and the ugly,” undermining authority, courtesy, respect, ethical and moral values—“leading the way,” he unexpectedly and implausibly concluded, “to unscrupulous capitalism, golden parachutes, and criminal corporation presidents.”

Ségolène Royal protested, “But Monsieur Sarkozy, 1968 was forty years ago!” She might have added, “and you were thirteen years old at the time!” This unearned commitment to an indignation, the cause of which Sarkozy never experienced, seems evidence of ideology more than of conviction.8 Royal, in any case, was scarcely the appropriate target for such accusations, since her presidential campaign was undermined by many Socialist Party leaders and militants precisely because of her persistent departures from left-wing orthodoxy.

From the start of her campaign she jettisoned a Socialist vocabulary of evasion and euphemism to insist upon the damage done to many workers by the Socialists’ thirty-five-hour work week, which had outlawed overtime for families, many of which depended on extra work. They often were further victimized in the reorganized working arrangements necessary to conform to the law by being compelled to work unsocial and family-disruptive hours. She demanded a “just order” in France, a formulation from Catholic social doctrine, conspicuously non-Socialist.

She said that young delinquents—referred to in politically correct Socialist discourse as “youths” (les Jeunes)—who had committed “incivilities” should go to camps under military control where they would be instructed in personal discipline, serious work habits, and skills leading to employment. She said it was the family and neighbors of these young men who suffered most from their “incivilities,” including having the cars and buses by which they got to work burned or trashed.

She said that if teachers in the national school system (overwhelmingly Socialist voters) could find the time within their allocated hours to give paid private lessons to students they should be required first to give individual lessons to their own students who were having difficulties. She insisted, “as a mother of four children,” on the violence done to children by pedophilia and pornography (a theme that made many on the left uneasy). When criticized, she said “I may be a little off-key [en décalage] with the Socialist Party, but I am in phase with the French people.”


The main foreign interest in this election outcome has concerned future French economic and foreign policy. A certain amount of nonsense has already been said about the economy, a New Yorker article claiming recently that the French system had to be rescued “before it crashes.” The country, it said,

has stalled. Its growth is minimal. Its protectionist policies are disastrously out of touch with the global reality, let alone with the realities of the European Union…. Its business, beyond the realm of luxury labels and designer clothes that the rich will always pay for, is not competitive.9

The French problem has been a well-recognized failure to deal with recent social and structural difficulties, including immigrant unrest and persistent unemployment. However, France is a leading exporter of construction, municipal, and financial services. Air France–KLM is the biggest and most successful European airline. France possesses Europe’s most extensive high-speed rail infrastructure and is the principal exporter of high-speed rail technology.

France remains in other respects the leading high-technology country in Europe. With Russia absent from civil aviation and British Aerospace (BAE Systems) now effectively an American company, the Pentagon its largest customer, France arguably is the second-ranking aerospace power in the world, concentrating much of Western Europe’s defense, aerospace, and electronics industries, including Airbus and Arianespace (which controls 40 percent of the world’s satellite-launching market)—both of them French initiatives in which France remains the most significant actor. Moreover, the Dassault company is a principal military and business jet producer and a leader in computer design. France is also the world’s leading exporter of nuclear energy technology and nuclear electricity plants (78 percent of France’s own electricity is nuclear-generated).10 It will take a while for the economy to crash.

France underperformed the EU average in GDP growth last year but outperformed Germany for the entire 1996–2005 period (2.2 percent average annual growth compared with 1.1 percent for Germany). It is expected to be above the EU average for all of 2007 with a forecast 2.4 percent growth. At 2.2 percent, inflation is not an issue. At just under 10 percent, unemployment, although improving, remains stubbornly above the EU average, the result of France’s much-discussed and real difficulty in introducing greater flexibility in its labor markets.11

Much of the French left remains wedded to a Malthusian notion of work (there is a limited amount, which must be shared out; thus the thirty-five-hour work week) and it has a misplaced faith in demand-side policies of subsidizing employment and raising the minimum wage to stimulate consumption. These reappeared in Ségolène Royal’s election platform, but they have also characterized the Chirac government’s initiatives on employment; its demand-side experiments in giving incentives to companies to hire and expand ran into popular resistance. Sarkozy has promised immediate action to correct all of this (he has published his “100 days” of planned reforms) but the problems, and the inertia of the system, remain considerable.

Relatively high taxation, including an only partially capped asset-based wealth tax, as well as an inability to give youth a sense of opportunity, in part because of a traditional commitment to the virtues of formal academic achievement, have led to a well-publicized if somewhat exaggerated exodus of the well-to-do, the entrepreneurial, and the ambitious. Tax exiles are now reported to be uneasily considering whether it is safe to return.

France nonetheless remains the second-most-powerful economy in continental Europe, behind Germany, which is larger and more populous. Its attraction to international business remains such that during the 2003–2005 period (the latest for which figures are available) it received three times more foreign direct investment than Germany and two and a half times more than Italy.


The subject of foreign relations was largely absent from the presidential campaign, an indication that existing policy enjoys a large consensus of support. Sarkozy prominently presented himself last year as a friend of the United States and critic of the manner by which the Chirac government had opposed UN Security Council support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But in his foreign policy speech on February 28, he said that Chirac had saved the French from involvement in a war that was a “historic mistake.” On the night of his election victory, May 6, he said, “I want to tell [the Americans] that France will always be by their side when they need her, but I also want to tell them that friendship is accepting that one’s friends can act differently.” He added criticism of the US for its failure to do more on climate change.

There is an inclination by commentators, at times when national leaders change, to assume that international relations are heavily influenced by the personal opinions and relationships among leaders who like to refer to one another as their great friends and to pose for group photographs. Americans have not forgotten George W. Bush’s peering into the soul of Vladimir Putin the first time they met, and finding him good.

Sarkozy may like Americans more than Jacques Chirac did, but as his election-night speech indicated, France’s perceived national interests and its public opinion determine policy, once the niceties of protocol are set aside. The French public certainly does not dislike Americans, but on the whole it dislikes very much the policies, as well as many of the leading personalities, of the George W. Bush administration. The politician Nicolas Sarkozy may be presumed to see only too well what undiscriminating commitment to the support of American policies and the Bush administration has contributed to the destruction of Tony Blair’s reputation.

American appeals for closer transatlantic relations, as at the US–EU summit in Washington at the end of April, characteristically assume that European criticisms and opposition to the US reflect a perverse inability, or deliberate unwillingness, of French and other Europeans to understand the correctness of American policy, or are at best the result of misunderstandings open to correction. Thus calls for more support for the United States on Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and other issues, or for greater military spending by Europe, usually ignore the fundamental and well-founded disagreements that may exist.

There are major misgivings in Western Europe over the American program to install anti-ICBM missiles in Eastern Europe, seen by most European governments as unjustified by existing threats and needlessly provocative of Russia. There is mounting doubt in France, and in the Netherlands and elsewhere, about the rationale, utility, tactics, and political costs of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan.

French commandos worked in collaboration with American special forces in Afghanistan from 2002 until very recently; but the Chirac government’s military advisers have been expressing concern that a slide is underway toward repetition of the Iraq disaster, and have questioned the utility of continued French (and NATO) activity in Afghanistan. President Sarkozy is unlikely to overrule them just because he wants an invitation to the Crawford ranch.


The French electorate ordinarily gives a new president the parliamentary majority to carry out his program, and that has been thought almost certain to occur in the case of Sarkozy. His popular majority was a clear mandate for legislative chance in the structure of employment, social benefits, and labor relations during his inaugural summer and fall, and for a new and modified European Union agreement to replace the constitutional treaty the French rejected two years ago.

It has been reasonable to think that he would get the substance of the legislation he wants. His election has been relatively calmly accepted, with (by French standards) minor and isolated, if often violent, eruptions mainly in city centers by young people from the extreme left (rather than the feared demonstrations in immigrant housing blocks on the edges of cities). Paris assuredly did not burn as a result of Sarkozy’s victory.

Sarkozy provoked great surprise with two days of meetings with union leaders, to discuss how the social reforms included in his electoral mandate might be negotiated with a minimum of conflict. His ceremonial installation as president took place May 16, and he left Paris late that afternoon for Berlin to dine with Angela Merkel, current president of the European Union. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s campaign director, was expected to be named prime minister the next day, and Fillon to announce the members of his government on Friday, May 18. Fillon is a former education minister (in the Balladur cohabitation government of the mid-1990s) and is now a senator. He has a reputation for discretion and effectiveness in developing consensus. Like Philippe Séguin, president of the court of accounts, and a probable minister, Fillon is on the “social” wing of the UMP. He is one of a family of provincial notables, his mother a former university professor.

Among others expected to be included in his government is the maverick Socialist Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, and one of the most popular figures in France, reportedly to become foreign minister. Another Socialist, Hubert Védrine, foreign minister in the last Socialist government (and the man who characterized the United States as a “hyperpower”), is thought available for another senior appointment in the Fillon government, which is expected to be a compact affair of fifteen members. This unexpected opening to the left by Sarkozy has thrown the Socialist Party into confusion as well as angering intransigently rightist members of Sarkozy’s own party, but has met general approval, suggesting that the new president does not consider France irrevocably coupée en deux.

Ségolène Royal’s decision to run for the presidency was not really an unconsidered one. Since she had become a junior minister in 1992, polls had consistently named her one of the three most popular Socialist leaders. After the fluke defeat of Lionel Jospin by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, she was the only Socialist leader at the national level to run for a regional presidency in 2004, doing so in a region formerly held by the sitting conservative prime minister, and winning. She subsequently led every presidential poll of active Socialist supporters, thanks to unorthodox policy proposals and an unstudied manner, winning personality, and good looks. (She was photographed on the beach in a bikini during the summer of 2006, to which the general response was amused and highly favorable. “Fifty-three, and after four children…!)12

Her presidential race this year ruined the hopes of a half-dozen elders of the Socialist Party (the father of her four children among them) who had expected to settle the Socialist presidential candidacy among themselves. None would probably have done any better than she, since many held the obsolete Socialist conviction, going back to before 1981, when the Communist Party dominated the left, that only a united left can win elections.

In defeat, the Socialists now are split between elephants who want to go back to the old strategy of an intransigent and united left, despite the fact that the “left of the left” gained less than 10 percent of the vote in this election. (The only far-left candidate who did well was a personable Trotsykist postman with 4.7 percent of the vote, who took time off from delivering letters to run for the presidency of the republic.)

Against them is the new and younger movement gathered around Ségolène Royal, who has promised (or threatened, in the view of some elephants) to lead them and the disappointed followers of François Bayrou into the June legislative elections as an alliance of “socialists and centrist republicans”—an alliance yet to be formed, and difficult to achieve because it means agreement to eliminate rival candidacies in all winnable constituencies.

Center parties have not prospered in the Fifth Republic, but the Socialist Party, as it is, seems clearly moribund. An unexpected success in the forthcoming legislative election would, perversely, imply a return to stalemate. Success in the next presidential election, in 2012, will depend on what Sarkozy accomplishes in the meantime.

—May 16, 2007

This Issue

June 14, 2007