- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

With election fever over, France speculates about whether the much-promised change by President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy is coming, and to what extent.

He has pledged a “rupture with the past” and new policies that some of his opponents say are likely to be brutal.

“Fasten your seat belts,” warned a Socialist politician embittered by his party’s third futile effort to win the presidency.

“Can Sarkozy transform his votes into a reform-ready majority of citizens?” asked another.

Mr. Sarkozy swept to power May 6 with a comfortable 53 percent of the votes, defeating Socialist rival Segolene Royal in a runoff election. The new leader promises to lift France out of economic stagnation, a crisis of confidence, and to improve relations with the United States.

The defeated and bruised Socialist Party immediately began plans for the June parliamentary elections that will determine Mr. Sarkozy’s “elbow room” for the reforms he promises. He is scheduled to move into the Elysee presidential palace May 17 after a week of rest on a yacht in the Mediterranean.

Unrest predicted

The political horizon of the 52-year-old conservative president-elect is clouded by warnings of unrest in the “suburbs,” the jerry-built, riot-scarred settlements on the outskirts of major cities, mainly housing poor immigrants from France’s former colonies.

Mr. Sarkozy, as interior minister, clamped down on suburban rioting in the fall of 2005, promising to punish “the scum,” as he termed the rebellious unemployed youths setting the suburbs on fire. His offensive epithet has not been forgotten.

Now, some of Mr. Sarkozy’s opponents, including Miss Royal, forecast more polarization and riots in France’s restive suburban slums.

“The conditions for a new explosion are there, and it will be more violent than before because the despair of some will be deeper and the exasperation of others will reach its peak,” Miss Royal predicted.

Mr. Sarkozy shrugs off such forecasts as political skirmishing, along with epithets describing him as “George Bush’s poodle” or “an American neo- conservative with a French passport.”

Chirac’s legacy

The legacy left by the combined mandates of 12 years of departing President Jacques Chirac includes a sluggish economy, rocketing public debt and chronic unemployment of 8.8 percent, surpassed in the European Union only by Poland, Slovakia and Romania. Two million residents in France live under the poverty level, and three million are unemployed.

One of every four French citizens is a civil servant who cannot be dismissed.

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