What Nicolas Sarkozy Would Mean for France

Socialist Ségolène Royal and right-of-center candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the remaining candidates for the French presidency, are rounding the turn and heading into the home stretch of the race, which will end with the final round of voting on May 6. Throughout the race, Sarkozy has been the frontrunner, though it is likely that the race will narrow near the end. But in holding the frontrunner status for as long as he has, Nicolas Sarkozy, the most unconventional of the French major party candidates, has shown that political change in France is possible. If he wins the presidency, French society will likely see itself significantly transformed.

The current socioeconomic state of France is nothing short of sclerotic. Unemployment — especially among the youth — is rampant and efforts to address the problem are usually met with expressions of social unrest. France periodically suffers from crippling strikes, much as Britain did in the pre-Thatcher era. Two years ago, the French were forced to drop the 35 hour workweek, but there remains a stigma against putting in more time at the office and increasing French productivity as a result.

All of this has conspired to leave France in a weakened economic and social condition. To the extent that France was once seen as a land of opportunity, that time has passed, at least for the moment. Indeed, enterprising French nowadays are forced to leave France for more promising climes; with London having become a city where the French believe they can find a better life with more opportunities.

It is safe to say that Ségolène Royal would preserve the status quo in France. Her campaign platform is significantly to the left and entails a dramatically high degree of intervention by the state in economic affairs. Royal’s platform would leave in place the current brand of statism and anti-free market policies the French have been following for so long and which have caused the French economy to founder so dramatically.

Sarkozy, by contrast, is the candidate of change. He has campaigned against the remaining vestiges of the 35-hour workweek, stating that those who wish to work more and earn more as a result should be allowed to do so. Indeed, his campaign celebrates the work ethic, with Sarkozy bluntly telling the French people that if they want to get ahead and if they want their country to prosper, they must work harder. Sarkozy decries the French brain drain to London, and realizes that it is the result of the relative lack of economic and social opportunities in France. He promises to reverse this trend and even took the step of going to London to campaign amongst the French expatriates there, promising them that he would work to change French society so that France would once again be a land of opportunity for its sons and daughters. Sarkozy’s call for a slimmed down bureaucracy and measures to combat the social unrest that have become so endemic in the life of France are bold and radical steps that promise to fundamentally change French life. If given enough of a chance, they would change it for the better.

All of this is not to say that Sarkozy is perfect. Quite the contrary; for all of his relatively rightist tendencies, Sarkozy is to the ;eft of American conservatives and libertarians on a whole host of economic issues. As discussed by Jurgen Reinhoudt, Sarkozy would tax hedge fund movements, has come out against “gigantic profits” and calls for “managed free trade,” which is clearly a nod towards protectionist sentiment even as Sarkozy works to liberalize France’s trade policies. Before you protest that Sarkozy is merely saying what he might have to say in order to get elected, note Reinhoudt’s apt observation in the article that Sarkozy was always a dirigiste, a central planner when it comes to economic policy. While Sarkozy is much more pro-American than many of his fellow French politicians, stating that “If I had to choose, I feel closer to American society than to a lot of others around the world,” he nevertheless holds economic views that are anathema to many in the United States. Sarkozy criticized the former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin for refusing to use the power of the state to save the jobs of workers at a Michelin tire factory and has pointed with pride to his efforts to subsidize French industries and protect them from international competition. Despite complaints that the French are overtaxed, Sarkozy has highlighted tax increases abroad and has spoken of them with admiration.

So Nicolas Sarkozy is not perfect. Far from it. But his campaign platform and his political philosophy represent a clear, dramatic and refreshing break from France’s status quo, a status quo alarmingly bereft of dynamism. And if someday, a genuine free marketeer is able to ascend to the Presidency of France, she — and her allies — may have Nicolas Sarkozy to thank for having helped pave the way.