The American Interest

Nicolas Sarkozy: The Hyperpresident

Introduction

It would be easy to predict the coming implosion of Nicolas Sarkozy’s still-new presidency. The French, after all, are notoriously averse to change and have a proven track record of stopping reforms in their tracks—just ask former President Jacques Chirac, who in 1995 saw his modest plans for reforming the welfare state rejected by hundreds of thousands of angry protesters. Or ask former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose even more modest efforts to tweak the French youth labor market ten years later were similarly rejected, this time by the very young people the reforms were designed to help.

Even when the French do not bring down governments with their feet they bring them down with their ballots—prior to 2007, in every parliamentary election since 1 978 the French had voted out of office whichever party they had voted in the previous time. (Two presidents during that period, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, did get re-elected, but in both cases not until after the majority in parliament had gone to the opposition.) Add to all this the non-stop pace of the ambitious Sarkozy and his defiant attitude toward French political and social conventions (for example, by vacationing in America, taking boating trips with rich friends, and jogging in shorts), and all the conditions seem to be in place for a regime that will trip up, exhaust itself, or create too many enemies before it gets anything done.

All that would be easy to predict but is, I think wrong. Sarkozy got elected running on an explicit platform of major change and praise for hard work, discipline, tax cuts—and even the United States. His victory by a comfortable, second-round margin of 53 percent to 47 percent for the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal suggests that the French may be more open to change than conventional wisdom had suggested. Moreover, Sarkozy is blessed with a hopelessly divided and demoralized opposition, unlikely to be able to challenge him anytime soon (in part because of his own cleverness in co-opting some of the most popular members of the Socialist Party). And for all the rhetoric about making a “clean break” with the past, an image reinforced by the frenetic pace of the workaholic new president, Sarkozy has already shown a willingness to compromise on issues like the 35-hour work week, university reform and “minimum service” for public transport. Remarkably, Sarkozy’s popularity has actually grown since taking office. His stunning approval rating, over 60 percent, is higher than that of any French president since General Charles de Gaulle after his return to power in 1 959.

Sarkozy’s honeymoon, of course, will not last forever. The vested interests who oppose change will resist and try to sabotage his reforms, the government will inevitably make mistakes, and, eventually, the opposition will find its feet (and new leaders). Most important, if recent signs that the French economy is slowing bear out, the government’s popularity—and its abilityto implement its promised reforms—will take a severe hit, as unemployment and budget deficits mount. Even so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something significant has happened in France. The French have elected a leader who has promised to break with thirty years of welfare-state stasis at home and conventional risk-averse diplomacy abroad, and whose energy, dynamism and ambition have not been seen since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1 958. Sarkozy’s success in reforming France over the next five years is far from guaranteed. More certain is that this determined hyperprésident is going to try, and that France will never be the same again.