- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The French presidential elections on Sunday were a vote for change — no matter who wins the runoff on May 6. More people turned out to vote than at any time since 1981. The next president of France will either be, by French standards, a pro-American, conservative or, of all things, a woman. With French political society being largely socialist and still very male-oriented, it is undoubtedly a sign that the country desperately needs new thinking.

As none of the four candidates managed to win 50 percent of the vote, the two frontrunners will face off against each other on May 6. The two candidates who made it were Socialist Segolene Royal (with 26 percent) and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (with 31 percent).

France is a country with an old-fashioned welfare-state economy, and it is still very statist and very badly equipped to deal with the international challenges of the 21st century. The French even managed to throw a wrench into the wheel of the European Union when they rejected the EU constitution two years back, and have certainly been looking to find their way back to the deeply desired leadership role on the continent.

A few statistics indicate the extent of the challenge faced by the next French president. Fully 50 percent of the French working-age population depends on some kind of funding from the state, whether in the form of salaries, benefits or pensions. Twenty-five percent of the young people in France have no job. France’s immigrants comprise 10 percent of its population, and the figure is growing, and the fact that it is not well integrated has remained a cause of major social unrest in recent years. Also, it has an entrenched, middle-aged political elite that clings on to power.

Though the prospect of a female French president is certainly interesting, it is unlikely that Miss Royal, a former defense minister, will come away with the victory, as indeed the numbers suggest. She has run a campaign suggesting that she is far from ready for prime time, resorting over and over to shirking tough questions by saying that “she would carry out the will of the French people.” She also made a few truly startling comments, such as referring to Quebec as an independent state. (She could probably get the French Canadian vote for that.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Sarkozy presents a very promising prospect as front-runner. He hails from the same party as President Jacques Chirac, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, but has not exactly received much support from France’s mercurial head of state, who is known not to like him. In fact, as interior minister, Mr. Sarkozy received little backing from the president for the tough measures, including curfews, which were instituted to quell the car-burning riots in the immigrant suburbs of Paris. Still, this is what may endear Mr. Sarkozy to the slice of the electorate that leans to the far right and voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round.

Relatively speaking, Mr. Sarkozy is free market-oriented, which makes him very unusual in French politics, as does the fact that he is not part of the traditional French political, elite class. (France is also one of the most class-conscious countries in Europe, ironically so, despite having killed off its royalty and nobility in the French Revolution.) Mr. Sarkozy himself has a business background and is the son of Hungarian immigrants. He is likely to try to modify France’s crippling 35-hour work week, which has failed to produce more jobs, and to improve incentives for business growth and liberalize the French labor market.

Most interesting from an American standpoint is that he would be a far more pro-American partner on the international scene than Mr. Chirac has been. (This may not be so hard, admittedly.) Mr. Sarkozy traveled to the United States on the fifth anniversary of September 11 and gave a rousing speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center that earned him much criticism back home. He stated that the French love American food, television and movies — all of which is true — and said, “Every French parent dreams of sending their child to an American university.” He also spoke of respect for American energy, courage and ingenuity.

A Sarkozy presidency could go far toward improving the dynamic between Europe and the United States, a project German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been working on assiduously, as well. This is good news indeed for the storm-tossed trans-Atlantic relationship.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide