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Kupchan: Sarkozy ‘In Pretty Good Shape’ to Win French Election

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 23, 2007

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top Europe expert, says Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the largest share of Sunday’s first round of the presidential elections, “is in pretty good shape” to win the runoff on May 6. It remains to be seen, he says, if Ségolène Royal can cut substantially into the centrist vote to emerge victorious. Despite earlier speculation that there might be some surprises in the first round of France’s presidential elections, the polls were “quite accurate, and Sarkozy and Royal together gained more than 50 percent of the vote”

The first round of the French presidential elections took place on Sunday, and despite speculation that there might be some surprises, the two people leading in the polls—Nicolas Sarkozy, who represented broadly the right wing and center-right and Ségolène Royal, the left and center-left—ended up one-two. They will face off on May 6 in the presidential election. What are the major differences between the two?

The polls proved to be quite accurate, and Sarkozy and Royal together gained more than 50 percent of the vote. The main differences between the two at this point are on economic issues. In particular that means the degree to which Sarkozy presents a view of France that tries to tackle some of the challenges of globalization, while Royal embraces a more traditional socialist view that protects the French economy against intrusions of the unfettered market. But as in the first round, the second round will be very much about personalities more than politics. The critical question is where will the centrist voters that went for [presidential candidate Francois] Bayrou end up on May 6. Will they tilt to the right or will they tilt to the left? That will essentially determine who wins the race for the presidency.

The polling shows that the Bayrou supporters, if given a choice between Sarkozy and Royal, would lean toward Sarkozy. Is that right?

If you add up the votes for the center-right and compare them to the votes for the center-left, Sarkozy looks like he’s in pretty good shape in the sense that [presidential candidate Jean-Marie] Le Pen plus Bayrou plus Sarkozy amounts to close to 60 percent of those that voted. The issue is: Of the 18 percent that voted for Bayrou, how many will veer to the left and how many will veer to the right? We don’t know the answer to that question, but I would say in terms of ideological inclination, centrist voters are closer to Sarkozy than they are to Royal. They represent, as close as one comes in Europe, a liberal party that would be consistent with the Free Democrats in Germany or the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

Or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the United States?

I would say the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. Centrist voters, for example, are more free-market oriented than Royal. They are uncomfortable with the idea of a centralized, state-controlled economy. They prefer a market that has less state intervention. And in that sense, I think they will tilt more toward the right than the left, in part because France’s left has yet to embrace the reforms that other center-left parties in Europe—the British or the Spanish or the Scandinavian center-left parties—have embraced.

Now Sarkozy’s made a major point about increasing employment in France and lowering the taxes. What is the problem with Royal on that? Does she not have an employment plan of her own? How does she stand on taxes?

Both recognize that unemployment in France is a problem and that it has not gone down in the last few years, and therefore this issue is of considerable importance. Sarkozy’s approach is one that advocates a freer market, the ability to hire new employees that are not subject to the same constraints of the traditional labor law and that lower taxes. And Royal is somewhat more conservative and somewhat leftist on the question of reducing unemployment.  This is a very critical issue in the sense that the center-right attempted to address this issue under [outgoing President Jacques] Chirac and [Prime Minister Dominique] de Villepin by creating a mechanism for more flexible employment, that younger French would be able to get jobs that did not have the same commitments and long-term promise of the traditional French labor law, but this was rejected by the parliament.

After a lot of street demonstrations, yes?

After a lot of demonstrations. This contributed to the sense that the Chirac government was without power and legitimacy. The critical issue is, which way will the centrist voters lean? If they want a France that is more flexible and better able to compete in the global market, they will probably lean toward Sarkozy. Or, do they want to protect the traditional French welfare state? Are they more interested in protectionism? In that case they will lean toward Royal.

Does Sarkozy’s plan differ from the plan put forth on employment by the Chirac government?

Sarkozy’s plan, as is Royal’s, is somewhat underspecified. Neither candidate has really come out and given detailed plans about how they intend to deal with unemployment. In general, Sarkozy would like to decrease taxes. Royal is looking for ways to allow employment to increase without infringing upon the traditional welfare state. But precisely because they have been trying to balance between their party base and the center, neither has given specific plans for how to deal with the challenges of liberalizing the French economy. I think it’s fair to say that the Socialist party in France and Royal’s political platform have yet to go in the direction of other center-left parties in Europe, such as the Labor Party in Britain, which have given up on the more traditional protection of the welfare state in favor of a more liberal, free-market economy.

What does “welfare state” mean when you say that?

It means very comfortable pension plans. In the French case, it means a thirty-five-hour work week. It also means very generous benefits for those who are laid off, and it makes it very difficult to lay off workers. It’s a much more regulated economy than the United States. If you look around Europe, you see a very wide array of approaches to this problem, whereby the British, the Scandinavians, the Spanish, the Central Europeans, have moved very much toward a more Anglo-Saxon mode, much more liberal, much more free-market oriented. The French, the Germans and the Italians have an economy that is much more centralized, much less able to adapt to the demands of the labor market. Germany has, to some extent, gone further than the French in that [Chancellor Angela] Merkel has made some adjustments that have helped produce growth in Germany and reduce unemployment. The center-left in France, as well as the left in Italy, is hunkering down and trying to protect a much more traditional welfare state. That’s one of the key issues at stake in this election. Sarkozy proposes to try to dismantle that traditional welfare state, and Royal is promising to protect.

Sarkozy has made an effort, I think, to be more pro-American in this campaign, and Royal just the opposite, to maintain an anti-American, particularly anti-Bush status. Would the United States have a more friendly government if Sarkozy won?

The differences between Sarkozy and Royal would be less significant than appears at the present time, though Sarkozy is definitely more pro-American than Royal. He came to the United States late last year. He met with members of the Bush administration, including President Bush. He is quite comfortable talking about his admiration for the United States and his desire for closer U.S.-French relations. Royal, on the other hand, studiously avoided coming to the United States. She has criticized Sarkozy for being too close to the Bush administration. And she tends to embrace the more traditional Gaullist dialogue about France and Europe standing up to the United States.

On the other hand, regardless of who wins on May 6, we are looking at a new generation of French leadership. Both Sarkozy and Royal were born after World War II. They don’t appear to embrace the undercurrent of anti-Americanism that de Gaulle embraced when he came to power and essentially withdrew France from NATO’s [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] integrated military structure. Even though there’s a sense that Sarkozy would be more pro-American, he will confront a French public and a National Assembly that is uncomfortable with the idea of a closer partnership with the United States, particularly the Bush administration. Even though I would guess that France-American relations will improve under a new president, both Frenchmen and Americans should keep their expectations in check about how much change there will be from the new president.

Okay, there’s a little less than two weeks to go before the final election. Who’s going to win?

The polls that predicted a Sarkozy-Royal, number one number two outcome on Sunday were actually pretty accurate. And therefore one would probably be wise to put a certain amount of confidence in the polls that predict a Sarkozy victory over Royal on May 6, but there’s no question that the two candidates will be veering to the center in the next two weeks. They will both be competing to attract the votes of Bayrou.

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