The French feel their country is stagnating at home and losing influence abroad, and Sunday they swept into office Nicolas Sarkozy, the blunt-spoken centerright candidate who promises to change that.
His opponent, Socialist Segolene Royal, campaigned on a platform of more socialism, which a majority of voters interpreted as more malaise.
The simple fact of Sarkozy’s election augurs for at least some change. He is the son of a Hungarian immigrant; he becomes the first French president born after World War II; and part of a new generation of European leaders who do not have baggage from the divisive quarrel with the United States over the war with Iraq.
Incumbent Jacques Chirac did not hide his disdain for most things American, but Sarkozy, who admires the mobility and opportunity available in the United States, reassured “our American friends” that “France will always be at the U.S.’s side when it needs her.” That’s nice to hear for a change from our oldest ally.
Sarkozy is committed to a broad array of economic and social reforms intended to get France’s economy moving again and lower its seemingly intractable 9 percent unemployment rate. He would eliminate job-killing workplace regulations, cut taxes, streamline the bloated public sector and tighten controls on immigration. He wants to see the country give greater value “to work, to authority, to respect, to merit.”
The French are skeptical of free trade and free enterprise, two goals of the European Union. France’s role in the EU has largely become one of saying no to its initiatives. Sarkozy vows to change that, too, and said after his election, “Tonight, France is back in Europe.”
He faces powerful entrenched interests — trade unions, students, government workers with lifetime jobs — and he still must cement his mandate in parliamentary elections this summer.
But the French voted decisively for change in their presidential election, and now we’ll see whether they have the courage of their convictions.