French President Sarkozy’s First 100 Days

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 7, 2007

It would be easy to predict the coming implosion of Nicolas Sarkozy’s three-month-old hyperprésidence. The French, after all, are notoriously averse to change and have a proven record of stopping reforms in their tracks — just ask Jacques Chirac, who in 1995 saw his modest plans for reforming the welfare state rejected by hundreds of thousands of angry protesters; or Dominique de Villepin, whose even more modest efforts to tweak the French youth labor market some 10 years later were similarly rejected. Even when the French do not bring down governments with their feet, they bring them down with their ballots — in every parliamentary election since 1978 and before 2007, the French voted out whichever party they had voted in the previous time. Add on top of this the nonstop pace of the ambitious Sarkozy and his devil-may-care attitude toward French media and social conventions (like vacationing in America or 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 I think quite 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 suggests that the French are more open to change than conventional wisdom held. Moreover, Sarkozy is blessed — in part due to his own cleverness in co-opting the most popular Socialists — with a hopelessly divided and demoralized opposition, unlikely to be able to challenge him anytime soon. 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 seems well aware of the need to avoid moving too quickly or radically — as evidenced so far by his willingness to compromise on the 35-hour workweek, university reform and “minimum service” for public transport.

Observers inside and outside France have likened Nicolas Sarkozy to Margaret Thatcher, a comparison Sarkozy himself has embraced. A more apt British comparison, however, might be with Tony Blair. Like Sarkozy, the youthful Blair also challenged party and political sacred cows in his first months, and he was similarly accused of accumulating too much personal power, ignoring Parliament, manipulating the media, cozying up to dubious tycoons, and aligning his country’s foreign policy too closely with that of the United States. But Blair also won three consecutive elections, destroyed his political opposition, modernized the British economy, passed major domestic reforms and helped Britain punch above its weight on the international stage. By the end, Blair had become deeply unpopular, and his bold support for the Iraq war finally proved a bridge too far. But that was after 10 years in power, not 100 days. Bet on Sarkozy to make a similar run.