- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

PARIS — Messages of doubt about the success of his program have begun to mark the “end of grace” for President Nicolas Sarkozy as France settles down to an uneasy period of “la rentree” or return to work after a somnolent summer.

Teachers are threatening strikes following the announcement that about 10,000 retired teachers will not be replaced. Labor union leaders are holding strategy meetings on how to react to expected cuts in welfare state benefits. And some intellectuals warn the man dubbed “Sarkozy, the American” not to tamper with foreign policy.

Across the 27-member European Union, analysts predict growing difficulties for the conservative president determined to change France. The initial enthusiasm of his followers is gradually giving way to concern. Once again, the gnawing question, “Can France be changed?” is emerging — mainly because there is too much to change and Mr. Sarkozy’s flexibility, despite the enormous power of his office, is nevertheless constrained.

“Sarkozy will have to deal with high unemployment, high taxes and stubborn budget deficits,” said Felix G. Rohatyn, former U.S. ambassador to France. In foreign affairs, he added, the new French president faces “the economic power of China and India, the capabilities of Russia to control European energy supplies and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s first 100 days in power — a traditional barometer in French politics — were marked by a plethora of announcements, a vacation in the United States where he met President Bush, a triumph by his wife Cecilia Ciganer Albeniz Sarkozy in obtaining the release of Bulgarian medics held in a Libyan jail, and a policy speech to French ambassadors thought by some to be signaling closer cooperation with the United States.

To back up his words, Mr. Sarkozy dispatched Bernard Kouchner, his socialist foreign minister, to Iraq to demonstrate willingness to get involved in an area so far considered to be taboo by French politicians. And there, Mr. Kouchner admitted that the possibilities were limited and there was basically little France could do of any significance.

“France has to be modest,” he said. “No one imagines that we have a magic formula, but we can offer a fresh look and help the people there restore their self-respect.”

In an effort to seek a balanced approach, Mr. Sarkozy appointed Hubert Vedrine, another socialist and former foreign minister, to assess the “state of France” and its possibilities. His 60-page report, published during the first post-vacation week of “la rentree,” basically challenged the hope of expected major changes in the concept of foreign affairs.

Mr. Vedrine urged a strongly independent foreign policy, opposition to any plans to rejoin the military structure of NATO, a distance from Washington’s views and objectives and the continuation of France’s traditional diplomatic priorities, such as close ties with the former African colonies and with the Arab World.

On economic issues, the controversial report urged more protection for people, “strict regulation” against the effects of globalization, and strong safeguards for France’s strategic industries.

Such views received initial approval across the political spectrum, which so far has given the new president high popularity ratings, reaching a rarely seen 70 percent. But public opinion is yet to digest the deeper meaning of the Sarkozy program, and foreign policy nuances rarely galvanize French voters.

French analysts cite the difference between the suggestions of the Vedrine report and Mr. Sarkozy’s own guidelines to about 180 French ambassadors gathered in Paris toward the end of August. The guidelines called for “an active role” on the world scene, included a stiff warning about Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, promised cooperation with Washington but “not subservience” and a commitment to Europe’s independent defense force.

Mr. Sarkozy’s choice of the French diplomatic corps for his first major foreign policy address was surprising because of his past criticism of diplomats, and particularly of the foreign affairs ministry, known as the Quai d’Orsay for its location on the banks of the River Seine.

Yasmina Reza, a well-known playwright and Sarkozy biographer, said he has spoken of “getting rid of the Quai d’Orsay” and has referred to several ambassadors as “idiots.” But the tempestuous 52-year-old president is known for his outbursts, when he has referred to his political enemies as well as to his aides “with unprintable vulgarities,” Miss Reza wrote in “Dawn Evening or Night” (L’aube le soir ou la nuit), a story of Mr. Sarkozy’s quest for power, which she observed while following him for a year.

Mr. Sarkozy’s election last May brought an unusual couple to the elegant presidential Elysee Palace in the heart of Paris. Both he and his 49-year-old wife openly dislike protocol and “sweep aside rules,” wrote the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro. Thus, the French first lady boycotted an official dinner at the June summit of the eight industrial nations in Heiligendamm, Germany, and while vacationing in the United States, declined — on short notice — an invitation to have lunch with the Bush family at their summer residence.

The triumph of the stunning, dark-haired, 5-foot-10 former fashion model was her trip to Libya, where she met strongman Moammar Gadhafi — and brought back in the presidential plane six Bulgarian medics sentenced to death by a Libyan court on accusations of infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus.

And then, with the haughty “I am not politically correct,” Mrs. Sarkozy declined to appear before a parliamentary committee to provide details of her mission to Libya. Some socialist opponents accused the president of the “personal abuse of power” so that “Madame Sarkozy can strut around the republican stage.”

For the time being, the colorful presidential couple has managed to avoid stronger criticism, although there are signs that the opposition is becoming increasingly watchful.

Mr. Sarkozy and his wife have brought to the French political scene a background that has little to do with France. He is the scion of a Hungarian aristocratic family and of a mother descended from Greek Jews converted to Catholicism. His wife claims Spanish Jewish and Belgian aristocratic ancestry. In a way, they symbolize the concept of France as a “land of asylum seekers.”

It is this president, literally bursting with energy, who will try to cut through the daunting “Gordian knot” of frequently mind-boggling, time-sanctioned French laws, privileges and excesses.

Thus, his aides said, on Mr. Sarkozy’s desk are questions of what to do about the 200,000 often luxurious apartments allotted rent-free to civil servants and 150,000 officials cars, most of them authorized for private use; the $3 billion spent a year on the salaries of 190,000 officials administering France’s remaining overseas territories with a population of about two million; the flight of talented and enterprising executives who are leaving high French taxation and restrictions to seek opportunities elsewhere. According to the Economic Analysis Council, about 10,000 business directors emigrated during the past 15 years, taking with them $100 billion to invest abroad.

And finally, the question of impressive emoluments for diplomats: although the Quai d’Orsay does not release such figures, French ambassadors are thought to receive the equivalent of $300,000 a year, compared with the $34,000 for the average civil servant.

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