Serge Schmemann, the editorial page editor for the International Herald Tribune, says the decisive victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential elections represents “a mandate for change” from the French people. He says that Sarkozy is very pro-American, but that French opposition to the Iraq war is unlikely to shift.
The French people by a considerable majority have elected Nicolas Sarkozy as their next president. Is this a very dramatic change for France, and does it herald a dramatic change in Franco-American relations?
Well, for France, it should represent major change, because that’s what people really voted for. Sarkozy started his political climb quite a while back, and he has created a great deal of excitement simply by being a man who has promised change. He’s not cast from the same mold as all politicians and presidents have been for quite some time. He didn’t finish the same schools, and he has always taken a tougher position, whether it be on law and order, or more importantly on the economy.
He has promised to put France to work, to end the kind of coddling that many French now perceive as part of their economic problem. But the problem he is facing is that while all the people seem to have voted for change and seem to want change in theory, there’s always incredible resistance when you try to create change in practice. And the unions are certainly going to test him as soon as he comes to office, with strikes and with whatever other weapons they have.
Will he have the parliamentary majority necessary to get his program through?
A lot will depend on parliamentary elections set for June. They will tell whether he can get the support he needs for the reforms he wants.
Back to my original question, what can we expect in Franco-American relations?
International affairs were not a big issue in the campaign, partly because there is considerable consensus between right and left in France. In terms of American relations, the actual content is not likely to change. Sarkozy is for pulling French troops out of Afghanistan. He was also against the invasion of Iraq. He is for the Kyoto climate change treaty, and on all the major areas of concern in which the United States and France have differed he is very much part of the French consensus. But nevertheless, he is openly pro-American. He admires America. He likes the American way. So he’s likely to have a good relationship with the American president. He is also quite openly pro-Israeli, which is different from previous French politicians. Again, that may not be necessarily a change in policy, but it will certainly be a change in the style, and maybe a change in tone. Sarkozy will visit Israel. He will frequently visit America. And he will be welcomed. So even if the differences continue, they are not likely to provide as much friction as in the past.
Can you expound more on the concept of “change”? Did Sarkozy get a “mandate,” do you think?
Change wasn’t mentioned per se throughout the campaign because Sarkozy tried to go toward the center and to say the things that would appeal to those voters. But I think the need for change pervaded the really strong feeling that came out of the entire campaign. This was the reason for the huge voter turnout of over 85 percent, massive for an established Western democracy, and the excitement over the debate. The streets were empty on Wednesday, the night of the debate. There were tourists wondering where everybody went because it was so empty in the streets. I’ve been through elections in different countries, and you could really feel that for the French this was important.
If Sarkozy plays it right, if he doesn’t get bogged down in either battles with the banlieues [suburbs, which have large immigrant populations] or battles with the labor forces, he has a chance to make a real difference. There certainly was a mandate. That’s not a term we could use lightly or loosely these days, but there’s no denying that people who turned out in these huge numbers were turning out because they felt that this was a turning point for France.
Let’s talk a bit about the economic reforms. Americans are aware that the French have a thirty-five hour work week, and they have very long vacations guaranteed. That’s all part of the government legislation, right? It’s not a union-negotiated benefit?
No, these are all part of government legislation. And it would be awfully hard to change. During his debates with the socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, Sarkozy spoke not so much of trying to lift the thirty-five hour week as trying to make it far easier to work overtime. Right now, overtime is heavily taxed. He was speaking of creating incentives for the French to work more.
I didn’t understand that. In other words, if a person works, say, forty-five hours a week, he has to pay a higher personal tax on it.
I don’t know the exact details, but there is a penalty. The way the laws are structured as I understand it, people are simply not encouraged to work. Now, what he would do, he would make it far easier. He would actually enact policies that encourage people to work beyond thirty-five hours, so that if they want to earn more money for a vacation, they would be encouraged to do so. He has not talked of challenging the thirty-five hour work week; the unions would probably bring the country down if he did, but [he aims] to find ways around them, to make working more attractive again. That’s one of the reforms. And the other is just a reform of tax structure, which really is a heavy burden on the top earners. Again, that will be very tough to change given the mentality that people have. He’s also talked of reducing the size of the civil service, which is the biggest source of the huge debt that France carries. It’s the sort of reforms that here they call liberal. By American standards, you know, the benefits would still be much grander than anything we could dream of.
You said earlier that he’s very pro-American. I take it that he’s very pro-American about the way the American economy functions and the U.S. taxation system and the incentives built into that rather than on foreign policy issues right now.
No, he is not very supportive of either the American-led invasion of Iraq or of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, where he thinks France should pull its troops out. On the other hand, he would probably be more supportive of Israel than recent presidents have been. So no, he is not what they call here a French poodle, referring to the derogatory nickname Prime Minister Tony Blair was called, “Bush’s poodle.” He would certainly have a stand of his own and a position of his own. He would not necessarily see eye to eye with the Americans. But he is, you know, a great admirer of American initiative, of the freedom that he sees in America, of the approach to labor. It’s more an appreciation of the American lifestyle and of the American approach to work than of American foreign policy, on which the French position is far more united. He is, however, very strongly pro-European, although he opposes the entry of Turkey into the EU. He is a strong supporter of the European Union.
France, in a referendum last year, rejected the European Constitution, which was regarded as a sort of death blow to European unity. Do you think he’ll try to resurrect that?
On the constitution he has declared that he will not try to resurrect it. That was one of the issues in their debate, but in a way that’s a meaningless way to phrase it because the constitution was never really a constitution, and the French and Dutch referendums killed it. It was really a compendium of all the EU laws into a more manageable form. I suspect that the movement will now begin to reinstitute all the elements of what had been called the constitution, but as treaties, which is what they would have been anyway, which make the EU a more efficient body.
One last thing on the elections: Is this a death-knell for the Socialist Party for the moment?
As it has existed, yes. It was a mess during the campaign. Royal’s partner, Francois Hollande, the man she lives with, is head of the party. They argued about everything, including tactics and strategy. All the old elephants in the party wouldn’t unite behind her. The party has become very conservative. For an American, I suppose, it’s a contradiction in terms for a Socialist Party to be conservative. But here, it had become truly a party that was incapable of moving forward. And although Segolene Royal tried to move it to the center, to create a more Blair-like vision for the party, the party itself never fully rallied behind her, never fully developed a new vision.
They’ve now lost three elections in a row. Yesterday, Segolene had two speeches after the election results were announced at 8 p.m., and they both seemed to look to the future. She seemed to be speaking now as somebody who wants the ride to continue, to reinvent, to redefine the Socialist Party. There will probably be massive soul-searching, and maybe a revolution from within the party. But it has to do something. It showed itself quite weak. Again, there is a major election coming up, the parliamentary elections in June. I’m sure the socialists will make a huge effort there, and they probably will try to maintain some kind of superficial unity.