- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

French voters sent a clear signal Sunday that they are ready for change. Ready, as the victorious Nicolas Sarkozy said, “to make a break with the ideas, the customs and the behavior of the past” and to “restore the status of work, authority, standards, respect, merit.” Mr. Sarkozy, the center-right candidate, defeated Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, in the second round of France’s presidential election. Unlike 2002, voters had a true choice between France’s two main political parties, and they handed Mr. Sarkozy both a victory and a mandate for his agenda of change. With the highest turnout in nearly 20 years — a substantial 84 percent — Mr. Sarkozy bested Miss Royal by six points, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Mr. Sarkozy’s ascension to the presidency is good for France and good for trans-Atlantic relations, and a once-again robust French economy will be a boon to the world economy. To start with, Mr. Sarkozy brings the better plan to restore France’s economy, slipping in its position in the world and saddled with increasingly high unemployment and burdensome public debt. Second, Mr. Sarkozy has shown a willingness to openly and candidly discuss immigration, assimilation and national identity — questions that French officials have shown an aversion to answering. Mr. Sarkozy is also a fan of Britain and of America, and not afraid to say so. “I’d like to appeal to our American friends to say that they can count on our friendship,” he said. With Mr. Sarkozy joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who as head of the EU has touted closer ties between Europe and the United States, the trans-Atlantic outlook looks more auspicious than it has in many years.

Still ahead are parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 10 and 17. Mr. Sarkozy needs a strong showing from his center-right party so that he has an ally in the National Assembly. Momentum is clearly on their side. For Miss Royal’s Socialists, on the other hand, the future looks far more tumultuous. Intra-party conflicts marked her campaign and have continued in the aftermath of her defeat, with fingerpointing between the left and the center.

“With your surname,” Mr. Sarkozy’s Hungarian-born father, an immigrant, said to him, “and the marks you get at school, you will never succeed in France.” Neither stopped Mr. Sarkozy, but his toughest fights lie ahead. His economic agenda will face a strong opposition that is willing to take to the streets. Jacques Chirac saw massive strikes in 1995 after trying to reduce public pensions, and he was forced to repeal a measure that sought to combat youth unemployment by making it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers after students took to the streets for weeks on end. To enact the structural changes needed to shake up France’s stagnant economy, Mr. Sarkozy will have to face down this opposition better than his predecessor.

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