Can Sarkozy change the face of France?

Posted in Europe | 08-Jul-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

French economy and finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that adjustments to the EU Stability and Growth Pact were needed to 'better reflect the individual debt and economic growth situation in each country.'
PARIS Are you Sarkozy? You've got five minutes," Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, told a nervous 20-year old about to make his first political speech at a Gaullist party rally in Nice in June 1975. To bursts of applause, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke for 20 minutes.

Nearly three decades later, as the finance minister of President Chirac's center-right government, Sarkozy still likes to talk - and to disobey. That quality, observers say, has transformed the man who was once Chirac's star protégé into the scourge and political shadow of the wily 71-year-old French head of state.

With his disregard for political taboos, a penchant for controversy and a constant presence in the media, Sarkozy has become France's enfant terrible, stirring as much admiration as he does unease in a nation that is deeply set in its ways and used to being governed by a clubby elite.

Driven since his teenage years by an unapologetic determination to become president, Sarkozy, at 49, flaunts ambition and seemingly boundless energy. He is unpredictable, never afraid to contradict or provoke or wade into political questions outside his brief.

As he marks his first 100 days at the Finance Ministry this week, the question looms: Can this son of a Hungarian immigrant dethrone Chirac in 2007 and become the next chief of state?

The personal dimension of the two men's rivalry has fascinated the French media for almost a decade. Sarkozy was transformed from political son and rumored future son-in-law (he had an affectionate friendship with Chirac's daughter, Claude, in the 1980s) to traitor when he backed Chirac's rival, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 presidential elections. Two years ago, Sarkozy's popularity obliged Chirac to tap the trained lawyer for the government.

Chirac responded by giving him the toughest jobs available. In 2002, as crime topped the list of voters' concerns, Sarkozy was placed in the Interior Ministry. Then, in a cabinet reshuffle in March after a stinging defeat in regional elections, Chirac sent him to the Finance Ministry, where he faced the formidable task of stimulating the flagging French economy with a gaping hole in government coffers.

But neither challenge seems to have dented Sarkozy's popularity - according to a poll published by the polling institute Sofres this month, 51 percent of eligible voters want Sarkozy to play an important role in French politics in years ahead. Only 34 percent professed confidence in Chirac, who has yet to announce officially whether he will chase a third term.

But the jockeying between the two men goes well beyond the individual rivalry. Strip away the personal drama and it becomes, in the view of some political observers here, a clash of the old France with an embryonic new one that could herald a fundamental shift in governance.

According to Nicolas Domenach, author of Sarkozy's latest biography, Chirac believes France is a fundamentally conservative country where reform needs to occur slowly, while Sarkozy is convinced that France craves change right now.

"Sarkozy embodies a new generation of politician," Domenach said. "If he becomes president, it would change the nature of the job from something traditionally almost monarchial to something much more prime-ministerial, hands-on."

Brice Teinturier, director of political studies at Sofres, says Sarkozy is to France what Tony Blair was to Britain: someone who transgresses traditional party lines and who spreads his gospel skillfully in the media.

"His style is novel," Teinturier said. "French presidents have always been heirs to a certain political family. Chirac presents himself as the heir of Gaullism. Sarkozy doesn't incarnate a specific ideology.

"If voters elect him, it would indicate that they have fundamentally modified their view of how politics should be conducted," Teinturier said.

Unlike almost every prominent French politician, Sarkozy is not a product of the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration. He controls no loyal voter base in the countryside. He was not born rich, but he was born resourceful: the son of a Hungarian immigrant, he was brought up in a middle class home in the leafy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine by a single mother. He financed his studies by selling ice cream and flowers.

For many observers, this resourcefulness is Sarkozy's main selling point. He markets himself as a new breed of pragmatist, Anglo-Saxon style, with an ear to the ground and a dogged determination to tackle France's economic and political malaise with swift action.

Sarkozy was not available for an interview for this article. But in responses e-mailed to the International Herald Tribune by his staff, he said of his political style: "I'm just trying to find the right solution for each problem. I'm trying to adapt to reality and above all not to deny it."

At a time when opinion polls show a widespread disillusionment with politics, unemployment is stuck near a four-year high and la Grande Nation struggles to come to terms with its diminished role in an expanded Europe, this message reaps substantial rewards with voters.

Mireille Toux, who has negotiated with Sarkozy on behalf of France's largest labor union, the CFDT, says that French people, disconcerted by globalization, declining population growth and the ailments of their prized welfare state, crave a strong leader. Sarkozy, she says, is the only one on the right or the left responding to that need.

"The relationship between Sarkozy and France is almost that of a father and his child - it's truly paternalistic," she said. "His authority and his drive fascinate people."

A teetotaler and amateur cyclist with a known passion for chocolate, Sarkozy is never far from his office - in April he moved with his wife Cécilia and three children from the Interior Ministry to Bercy, as the Finance Ministry in eastern Paris is known.

In his first three months in office, he privatized 35 percent of Snecma, the jet-engine maker, and prepared the state-owned power company, Electricité de France, for a partial sell-off in the face of fierce union opposition. He won grudging backing from European competition authorities for a E2.5 billion, or $3 billion, bailout for Alstom, the company that makes France's iconic high-speed TGV trains. In a bid to increase consumption and growth, he also told retailers to cut the prices on brand-name products by 5 percent from next year and introduced tax breaks on consumer loans.

"He is a tireless worker," said Jean-Michel Gaillard, a friend who as a former adviser to late President Franc¸ois Mitterrand is politically closer to the Socialist party. "His main goal is to give politics back its meaning."

Yet it's not entirely clear to some of Europe's diplomats just what that meaning is.

A number of diplomats say they were initially impressed with Sarkozy's pledges of liberalism. But his subsequent calls for a European industrial policy that would have governments foster national industrial champions have visibly dampened the enthusiasm. In the case of the troubled French engineering giant, Alstom, Sarkozy's protectionist stance - in which he initially refused to let German engineering group Siemens take over Alstom's turbine business - provoked the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to dub his methods "extremely nationalistic."

In this, as in so much else, the finance minister was apparently unabashed: A recent tour of his office, in his absence, revealed a model of Alstom's high-speed TGV train on the shelf behind his desk.

To his critics, Sarkozy's energetic promotion of France is protectionism with a different face. "Under the cloak of a new economic liberalism, it's the same old Gaullist stance," sighed one official in Brussels. "In the end Sarkozy is like any other Frenchman: French interest comes above all else," the official said. "It may be called liberalism in France - everywhere else it's called protectionism."

Still, at home, economists and entrepreneurs are suspending judgment for now, acknowledging that Sarkozy has an extremely difficult task to rectify French growth: Amid a E65 billion budget deficit Sarkozy has little scope to boost economic growth with tax cuts or extra spending. Yet recent measures he has taken to revive consumption - such as asking brand-name manufacturers like Coca Cola to reduce prices in order to stimulate spending - carry his hallmark of making something out of nothing.

Sarkozy's 22 months at the Interior Ministry may be a better guide. He earned his reputation as France's "premier cop" by visiting troubled suburbs across the country, increasing policing powers, restricting immigration rules, clamping down on drunk-driving and pushing through tough laws against prostitution and begging.

The result has been mixed: Crime statistics fell in 2003 for the first time in six years, down 3.4 percent, and unemployment has once against replaced crime as voters' top worry in opinion polls. But a closer look shows that while petty crime and theft declined, the number of physical attacks rose. In a report published in May, Amnesty International warned that complaints about police violence in France are on the increase.

This has led a number of critics in the opposition party to deem his highly publicized initiatives as short-sighted and superficial.

"Sarkozy has managed to make people feel safer without solving the underlying problems," said Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a Socialist member of Parliament. "Of course that is in itself an achievement. But one day his media bubble is bound to burst."

As a life-long political campaigner and former communications minister, Sarkozy knows how to charm the media - last year he was elected "personality of the year" by the French press. It is rare that he loses his cool on air, but when he does, it shows a radically different man. In an televised question-and-answer session in Parliament in April, he responded to heckling by Socialist lawmaker Henri Emmanuelli with a menacing: "You watch it. Watch out for yourself."

This "dark side" of Sarkozy, as some political observers have called it, has only added to the myth surrounding his character. In a measure of how alien the minister's ambition remains to many compatriots, the press has sought an explanation in everything from his modest upbringing to his parents' divorce and early squabbles with his better-looking younger brother. His wife Cécilia, who is also one of his advisers at the Finance Ministry, argues that the obsession with her husband's dynamism illustrates just how rare it is.

"Why does everyone think you need to have a childhood trauma to be ambitious?" she asked in her office, just down the hall from her husband's. "Maybe this tells us more about France than about Nicolas Sarkozy."

'Sarko,' as he has come to be known in France, joined youth politics at age 17 in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly, becoming mayor at 28 and France's budget minister at 38.

His whole life has been a campaign to reach the top, his friends say. Patrick Balkany, a teenage companion and fellow Hungarian who is now mayor of a Paris suburb, remembers asking Sarkozy in 1974 what he wanted to do with his life. "We were walking down the street and he answered without hesitation: 'The only thing that interests me is becoming president.' I didn't laugh."

To be sure the path to the presidency is still lined with risk: Most notably, the opposition Socialist Party, which hammered the Gaullists in recent regional and European elections, may field a strong candidate, or Chirac may run himself.

And if the president does bow out, Sarkozy could face his greatest challenge yet: defining himself and his politics without the figure who has helped sketch his image for so many years.

When Chirac says affirmative action is not an option, Sarkozy publicly endorses it. When Chirac suggests Turkey is making progress on the way to European Union membership negotiations, Sarkozy says Turkey "isn't European enough." When Chirac says he hasn't made up his mind on whether or not to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, Sarkozy says he should. The comments reap attention less for their substance than their flouting of Chirac.

Les Guignols, a widely watched satirical news program with life-size puppets of politicians, has long capitalized on this phenomenon. Ahead of the 1995 presidential ballot, Sarkozy was depicted as the traitor with no convictions, while the Chirac puppet came on air with a knife in his back every night. Today, Chirac tries to clip Sarkozy's wings, most recently dressing up as an EDF worker, cutting off the finance minister's electricity and then beating him about the head in the dark.

Yves Le Roland, producer of Les Guignols, says the two characters live off each other. "It's their complex relationship that makes them interesting on the screen and in real life," he said. "Without Chirac, Sarkozy would look a bit more boring."