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France braces for reforms under Sarkozy

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.

Mr. Sarkozy has promised to "moralize capitalism" by relaxing the 35-hour work week introduced by the Socialists when they were in power, lowering taxes for households and companies, curbing the power of labor unions and overhauling the generous pension system and shock absorbers of government workers.

He also believes in what he once described as "economic patriotism," meaning state support for enterprises that help France's international prestige.

Miss Royal campaigned on a strong Socialist program that would protect all welfare-state benefits, create 500,000 subsidized jobs, raise the minimum wage by 20 percent and send juvenile offenders to boot camps supervised by the French army.

As the electoral campaign became more passionate, many started to question her qualifications for the country's top job. Miss Royal is 53 years old, an unmarried mother of four, and has served in Cabinet posts in socialist governments.

To her supporters, she embodies charm, exceptionally good looks and "a moment of truth for femininity," in a country that gave women the right to vote in only 1946 and ranks 22nd in the EU in the number of Cabinet members.

To Isabelle Courtiveron, a university professor, Miss Royal "represents a mixture of traditional France and rebellious modernity." According to the IPSOS polling institute, the women's vote went to Mr. Sarkozy.

No foreign policy shift

Foreign policy issues were singularly absent from the election campaign, with French commentators and analysts concluding that no major changes in that field should be expected.

By all indications, Mr. Sarkozy will continue France's criticism of the war in Iraq, its strong role as a major partner and founding member in the EU, and demands for an independent European military force. He will try to improve relations with the United States, strained under Mr. Chirac.

Another significantly different aspect of his foreign policy program is opposition to Turkey's application for EU membership, likely to put the union in a quandary but appeasing the voters who rejected the EU draft constitution in a 2005 referendum, fearing it would open a path to Turkish membership.

Critics say Mr. Sarkozy's daunting economic program surpasses the possibilities offered by one five-year presidential mandate, despite the enormous power of the president under the constitution of the Fifth Republic established by the late Charles de Gaulle.

The president determines the defense and foreign policies, can dissolve parliament, can appoint and fire prime ministers, veto laws approved by parliament and pardon criminals. While in office, the president is immune from prosecution, something Mr. Chirac used to his benefit when faced with financial scandals from his tenure as mayor of Paris.

Key elections in June

Of some concern to the new president are the approaching legislative elections in June that will determine the color of the National Assembly and of the new Cabinet. If the Socialists, defeated in the latest parliamentary election five years ago, manage to win, Mr. Sarkozy would be forced into a system of "cohabitation" with a Socialist prime minister.

Mr. Sarkozy is confident this result is unlikely because of the strength of his party, the Union for Popular Movement. And confidence is something he has never lacked. As one of his political associates put it, "He could be left or right, but his allegiance is to success."

Mr. Sarkozy's dream of becoming president apparently goes back to his teenage years.

Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa is the son of an aristocratic Hungarian father and mother of Greek-Jewish ancestry converted to Catholicism. For much of his political life, he has been a loner, a man outside the system.

A lawyer by profession, he did not attend any of the elite schools favored by the French political class.

He considers himself to be a modernizer who is not reticent to impose necessary changes on the country and claims "the French are not afraid of change; they are waiting for it" -- a view some analysts dispute.

His often abrasive behavior was seen by many as an obstacle to his election that he managed to overcome. Nonetheless, the festering problem of the restive suburbs and of the assimilation of the alienated youth remains without a satisfactory solution in sight.

One field where Mr. Chirac's interest and experience regarding global issues will be missed is that of foreign policy. He had a personal relationship with the world's leading statesmen and intensely cultivated friendships with the leaders of former French colonies.

Mr. Chirac's opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and his frequent nationalist outbursts gained him considerable approval. But he burned his fingers by calling a referendum on the EU constitution, rather than simple parliamentary approval which was virtually guaranteed.

A friend of the U.S.

Mr. Sarkozy is no foreign policy expert and so far has carefully avoided issues that could expose either his lack of knowledge or experience.

A strong France with a unique voice and world role are part of the Gaullist tradition to which Mr. Sarkozy subscribes. He appears to be satisfied with France's influence in the United Nations Security Council and its stature as a nuclear power, without needing to discuss such issues further.

He is unlikely to make bold decisions on French policy in the Middle East or on the EU's confrontation with Russia's increasingly ambitious President Vladimir Putin.

Said Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a former French president, "It's France living with the shutters closed, as if the outside world did not exist."

Derided by the Socialist opposition as "an American lackey," Mr. Sarkozy regards himself as "a friend of the United States" but without stressing it too much in a country where anti-Americanism is popular.

Nonetheless, in his victory speech, he pledged friendship with "the world's greatest democracy."

"France will always be there when they [the United States] need us," he said, adding quickly that "friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions."

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