Features

Ready for 'rupture?'

France | Nicolas Sarkozy will lead a country perhaps not prepped for his kind of change

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

The mayor took the initiative and negotiated with the hostage-taker, carrying preschoolers from a classroom as the dynamite-strapped man released them. Two days later the "Human Bomb" was dead, the children were safe, and the mayor was a hero. Rudy Giuliani? No: Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who is France's new president.

If audacity marked Sarkozy that day in 1993 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, it propelled him to a strong victory May 6 in France's presidential election. He is an un-French choice, a somewhat unexpected conservative winner promising a "rupture" with the past in a country loath to change.

Sarkozy takes France's helm at a similar point in its history to when Margaret Thatcher took over Britain: during a sluggish economy and a time of low national morale. "The French don't know exactly what is needed, but they've noticed that our system, our 'social model,' doesn't work and we need change," said Christophe Maillard, spokesman for Nanterre-based Liberté Chérie, a group that promotes free-market ideas.

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The uncertainty about the future of France may both help and hurt Sarkozy in the months ahead. As France's interior minister for the last five years, he built a reputation as a tough, if controversial, law-and-order type. On election night, adoring supporters in Paris' Place de la Concorde interrupted him frequently with chants of "Nicolas, Nicolas!" as he tried to begin his victory speech. The same night, angry leftists began rioting and torching cars in several cities, a small-scale reminder of how Muslim youths rioted for weeks in 2005.

For Sarkozy, at least, becoming president is a hard-fought dream. He worked his way through university and, unlike other French leaders, did not attend France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration. His father, a minor Hungarian aristocrat, abandoned his family when Sarkozy was 4, later remarrying twice and refusing to support his first wife and children.

An ambitious Sarkozy entered politics in his early 20s, sporting bell-bottoms and longish hair. Jacques Chirac spotted his smarts early, and a 1981 photograph with the two shows a fresh-faced Sarkozy by his old mentor's side. Both would become president, but Sarkozy later broke with Chirac, beginning a larger rift with France's old-guard politics.

Years later, when a television interviewer asked Sarkozy if he nurtured any hopes for the presidency while shaving in the mornings, he replied, "I do, and not just when I shave." Sarkozy's high-energy personality is already a hook for humorists. The popular, if left-leaning, satirical show Les Guignols de l'info (News Puppets) portrays him as jittery and fast-talking and takes pot-shots at his Napoleonic 5-foot-5-inch height. On their election night special, a victorious Sarkozy character shouts, "France is mine!"

Apart from a quick post-victory vacation in the Mediterranean, Sarkozy has been all business. He plans to cut taxes and loosen France's rigid labor laws. To succeed, Maillard told WORLD, Sarkozy also has to help reform French "statist" ideas, where the government offers safety nets from cradle to grave.

Sarkozy will also have to stare down well-organized unions who can "disrupt the whole country to block a reform, even one democratically passed by the parliament," Maillard said. "When they disrupt trains, boats, subways, or access to universities, the government does nothing. They put up with it and accept the unions' ability to make a nuisance."

Last year, trade unions organized some of the biggest labor demonstrations in France in years over mild reforms that the government then dropped. Next month France holds its legislative elections, and large wins for Sarkozy's party would help his reforms. In any case, the new president will have to work hard to make a rupture out of what others will try to keep a slight tear.

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