Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Enough hyperactivity already?

Turbulence may lie ahead for Nicolas Sarkozy

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Elected President of France with a comfortable majority last May on a platform of strong will and ‘rupture’, Nicolas Sarkozy was not long to introduce initiatives on all fronts, from justice to education, tax to labour laws.

The first of four important bills to be passed during the summer, a law aiming at tackling recidivism, hands out tough minimum sentences to re-offenders. Second, the long awaited reform of French universities – making them more autonomous – was described as a first step by the government, after it generated criticism. A third controversial bill, guaranteeing minimum transport services during strikes, was passed after a couple of troubled days. Finally, on the fiscal front, the law adopted on August 3rd introduced tax reliefs and exemptions worth around 10 billion euros according to the French Finance minister. These “gifts to the rich” were attacked by the opposition for costing 16 billion euros to the State.

In substance, there can therefore be no doubt that Nicolas Sarkozy is implementing a rightwing programme, to the satisfaction of the majority of the French people. A closer look at his method shows the man’s strengths: strong leadership skills, a gigantic work capacity, omnipresence. In contrast to the historic tradition of an ‘arbitrary-President’ under the 5th Republic Nicolas Sarkozy presents himself as the real head of government, and his prime minister as a mere collaborator. And his remarkable political talents were demonstrated by the unexpected strategy he used against a reeling Socialist party, convincing an immensely popular senior figure, Bernard Kouchner, to take on the role of Foreign Secretary. A popular Socialist ‘elephant’, Jack Lang, will also take part in a high-profile commission on institutional reform; three other former socialists will accept junior ministerial positions; and former Socialist presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Khan, has Sarkozy’s support for the IMF directorship.

These successes explain Nicolas Sarkozy’s high poll ratings since the presidential election. More than 60 per cent of the French population trust the President. Far more worryingly for the Socialist party, over 43 per cent of leftwing sympathisers admit to finding Nicolas Sarkozy ‘able’ and ‘efficient’, ready to implement long-awaited necessary reforms.

Sarkozy has also won some notable successes on the international stage. He fulfilled his election promise to agree a replacement treaty to the aborted European constitution. His meeting with George Bush is being seen as the symbol of the start of a new collaborative relationship between France and the United States. And the successful liberation of the Bulgarian nurses, who had been held in a Libyan prison for seven years, was a notable success for him and his wife, Cecilia..

Nevertheless, if Nicolas Sarkozy seems to play well on both national and international fronts, and if he has so far benefited from favourable political circumstances, Mr Sarkozy has recently had to face the first real turbulence of his young presidency.

Nicolas Sarkozy is hoping that his package of fiscal reforms will boost productivity, increase spending power, encourage investment in small businesses and stimulate growth. But it has brought severe criticism from European finance ministers for potentially cause of destabilisation of the euro and of breaking of the Eurogroup’s 3 per cent budget deficit rule. The French president may also be weakened by the OECD and European Commission’s lowered growth projections for France in 2007: 1.8 per cent and 1.9 per cent, well short of the government’s 2.25 per cent target slated to pay for tax relief and pensions.

In addition, the French president’s desire for big national industrial champions – such as in the case of a potential merger between Alstom and the nuclear company Areva – has reinforced tensions with the rest of Europe, not least Germany, which also has interests in Areva. The presentation of the liberation of the Libyan hostages as a French rather than a European success, and Mr Sarkozy’s attacks on Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, had already caused irritation.
On the domestic front, three areas are likely to be highly controversial in the coming weeks and months, although Nicolas Sarkozy’s determination may be reinforced by the high percentage of the population declaring themselves in the polls as strongly in favour of reform.

The first of them concerns an immigration bill due to be discussed in parliament in the coming days, and already severely criticised by NGOs. The second concerns the thorny question of the generous special retirement terms for some 1.6 million workers and pensioners, and which are evaluated to cost the French taxpayer £3bn a year. The third relates to a reform of the sacred ‘Fonction Publique’ – or civil service – and to the controversial non-replacement of civil servants on the verge of retirement.

The last few weeks have therefore seen the President being increasingly accused of ‘hyper presidentialism’, colbertism, heavy state-interventionism and a media-obsessed style.Whether Nicolas Sarkozy manages to have his most sensitive reforms adopted without seeing France paralysed by trade unions and further annoying France’s European partners, and whether his reforms are successful in realising his objectives of higher growth, remains to be seen. Few can doubt his determination and his understanding of the French people’s desire for reforms, but his past strength, or personal involvement in all areas?, may well become a weakness as he becomes more and more exposed.

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Constance Motte

is parliamentary researcher to Denis MacShane MP

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