Home / Sarko: The Man Who Would Change France

Sarko: The Man Who Would Change France

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The modernising face of France's Socialist Party, Segolene Royal, has certainly seen better days. At one time, she was enchanting the electorate and enjoyed a marginal lead over the man they call Sarko. Now, however, Royal's campaign has quite nearly crashed and burned, opening the door for another modernizer, the aforementioned Nicolas Sarkozy, to run away with the vote.

Now, I would like to state for the record that Royal seems like sincere woman and she certainly did have big plans for the Socialists by questioning the 35-hour work week and championing zero tolerance law-and-order as she did. However, this sounds uncomfortably like Britain's New Labour. Ms. Royal would only have faced harsh criticism from within her own party and the far Left in France have rejected her. So, with the a hefty chunk of the Left deserting her and no significant votes to count on from the Right, Royal pretty much looks finished.

Enter Sarkozy, who is the candidate for Jacques Chirac's party, the center-right UMP. But Sarkozy is nothing like Chirac. Jacques Chirac was a conservative under a French definition of the term only — a jealous Gaullist, paranoid of the "Anglos." Sarkozy, in sharp contrast, enjoys close relations with Britain — he was recently feted in London by Tony Blair — and has expressed admiration for, and a desire to work with, the United States.

Chirac has refused to endorse Sarkozy, due to both personal as well as political matters. In fact, according to Jonathan Fenby in his book On The Brink: The Trouble With France, it is par for the course that French politicians from the same party fall out and refuse to lend their support once an underling vies for the top job. Fenby writes, rather amusingly, "Take any element of French life and it will almost certainly contain rival factions." Sarkozy is Giscard d'Estaing to Chirac's De Gaulle. Envious of Sarkozy's ambition and popularity, and disgusted by his transatlanticism, Chirac will leave politics silently and sullenly.

Nicolas Sarkozy now stands as the people's choice, but Sarkozy himself once struggled for acceptance. The son of immigrants, a Hungarian father and Greek Jewish mother, Sarko felt out-of-place growing up and admitted that he did not "feel French," despite being a Roman Catholic and speaking only French, having never learned Hungarian from his father. Sarkozy was determined to fit in to French society, however, and fought his way through the ranks, becoming mayor of the Parisian suburban town of Neuilly in 1983, a position he held for nearly 20 years. Even mayors in France can wield considerable political influence, allowing them to make a name for themselves. Sarkozy became Interior Minister in Chirac's cabinet in 2002.

Sarkozy rose to the limelight in 2005 when he referred to disenfranchised youths in Paris, and those responsbile for the riots across Paris and elsewhere in France, as "rabble." Although some unfairly put him in the same far Right class as Jean-Marie Le Pen, many others saw a plain-talking man willing to tell it like it is. He has attacked the 35-hour week and is seen as tough on crime and willing to crack down on offenders, thus stealing Royal's thunder. Sarkozy has also criticized immigration policy and the EU, and has even, daringly, championed the "Anglo" economic model.

Sarkozy has the charisma to woo the electorate, but the important thing for Sarko to remember is that the French electorate will be voting for change. So he must deliver on his promise to shake up the system and reform France, put people to work, rescue the French economy, repair relations with Britain and the U.S., all the while championing France as a world power and not giving an inch of French pride away. It seems like a hard job, but it is the sort of task which a "hyperactive, ambitious workaholic" — in the words of a Sarkozy biographer — should relish.

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  • Roger Choate

    Nice article, Mark. What do the latest polls actually say, specifically? There’s still some time to go before elections. Should Royal be ruled out completely, in your opinion?

  • Thanks, Roger.

    Royal’s not out, which is why I was careful to say that her campaign nearly crashed and burned, but didn’t do so completely. She is rescuing her campaign and appeared on French TV a day ago, speaking directly to the people. I think what people have seen in her so far is an overzealous and unprepared candidate whose temperament needs more refining. After all, declaring that she was in favor of Quebecois independence and getting rebuked by Canada’s Prime Minister was not the smartest of moves … Royal may still have a chance, though.

    Sarkozy has, at the time of writing, a ten point lead. He and Royal were only recently dead-even, but Sarko starting gaining an edge, and it just might have been due to Royal’s gaffes and floundering. Both candidates are very sauve, seductive and politically sophisticated, but Sarko has the edge, as he is more experienced and better able to run a campaign.

    Royal’s not out and may yet put up another fight, but in the end, even if by a close margin, Sarko will carry the day.

  • Aku

    An interesting article. I have been trying to keep tabs on Sarkozy for a while.

    What is of particular intrest to me is how he expects to prepare France, perhaps the most socialist and protectionist of the Major world powers, for greater globalization. His stabs at the 35 hour work week is a move in that direction.

  • Sarkozy seems genuine in his desire for reform, and people seem responsive to this message. Sarkozy does have protectionist tendencies, but he’s no socialist.

  • Me, I’m rooting for Le Pen… 😉

    But seriously, French elections are much different than American elections. There are countless parties and countless candidates, and they will all get a share of the vote. It will most likely come down to a run-off between Sarkozy and Royal, with Sarkozy winning in the end. But how is Le Pen currently polling? And the numerous communists/socialists?

  • JustOneMan

    Im rooting for Pepe LePew

  • STM

    No matter who wins, it won’t improve the standard of the waiters in Paris and it won’t make our gallic cousins any less duplicitous 🙂 France will just blunder on, still believing it is the world’s most influential country.

    They do make great cars though ….

  • They make great cars? Which ones? I’m currently looking for a new car, so this is a serious query…

  • I think STM was being sarcastic about the cars.


  • JR

    Renault, Peugeot and Citroen have all won championships at the top level of motorsport in recent years (Renault are two-time defending F1 constructors champions, and I think Citroen has won the last three World Rally Championships).

    However, none of the French manufacturers currently sell cars in the U.S.

  • STM

    Actually Dave, I was being serious for once. They have moved beyond their quirkiness to the point where they are actually really bloody good cars. They have all been involved in racing, and Renault in particular is building some really hotted up cars using its F1 know-how.

    I am driving a French number at the moment: a turbo-diesel Peugeot 307 station wagon. It’s considered a green car here because of the particulate filters and Euro-standard emissions laws, and unlike my previous car – which seemed to use up the world’s remaining oil supplies on a trip to town – this thing gets just over an amazing 5L/100kms. The mathematics of that are that it costs me about $20 a week to run, despite driving from home to the city six days a week, and cost just a fraction more to buy than the big locally designed Ford or Holden six-cylinder station wagons I was looking at.

    It also goes like the clappers once you are off and running, with really good mid-range torque, although it won’t pull the skin off a rice pudding in a drag race at the traffic lights.

    It’s been a revelation, though. Peugeot is advertising that its turbo-diesel 307s are getting 1100kms to a tank, although some owners are reporting better consumption.

    I recently drove to near the Queensland border – a nine/10-hour trip from Sydney – on less than a tank, although I drove very carefully to conserve fuel.

    And I’m doing my bit for the environment too, and for export to countries that drive on the proper side of the road, they have kindly also built their right-hand drives in England so the steering wheel is manufactured on the proper side of the car as is required in Australia, so it’s all good.