France's Ambitious Sarkozy Faces Huge Challenges

Posted in Europe | 09-May-07 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

After securing a comfortable win against his Socialist Party rival Ségolène Royal, the Union for a Popular Movement's (U.M.P.) presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy delivered an important speech in Paris on May 6. Sarkozy succeeded in winning the support of the majority of French voters with an ambitious political program and promised radical changes in the country's social and economic life. Nevertheless, he is likely to cause strong opposition to his agenda, and the next 12 months will prove crucial for his ability to consolidate power and prestige.

The Logic Behind Sarkozy's Win

During the last five years, French politics have provided a number of surprises for international observers. In 2002, incumbent President Jacques Chirac won a re-election bid against the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen amidst fears for the success of France's rampant xenophobic and anti-globalization National Front. In 2005, French voters said "no" to the proposed E.U. Constitutional Treaty and caused a serious political impasse in plans for European integration.

During those years, and up until today, a deep restructuring of France's political parties began to take place. In the Gaullist party, the U.M.P., Nicolas Sarkozy personified the renovation of the French republican right. According to him and to some of his principal advisers like Patrick Dévedjian and François Fillon, France should clearly opt for the renewal and enhancement of the Atlantic alliance and a strong friendship with the European Union's new members, such as Poland and the Czech Republic. At the same time, these decision makers think that Paris should reduce its traditionally generous welfare state, introduce more economic liberalism and competition, as well as stricter rules for immigration.

Opposed to Sarkozy, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and other big party players remained attached to Chirac's vision of neo-Gaullism. As part of this view, France should work to build a strong European Union led by Paris and Berlin. Such a new superpower would gain strategic autonomy from the United States, especially in Middle Eastern politics, where strong ties with select countries (such as Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon) would be forged even though a strategic divide between Europe and the United States would ensue.

A key point in French politics has been that even though the United States and its allies became embroiled in Iraq after the 2003 intervention -- just as Chirac warned would happen -- France's refusal to get involved in Iraq has not brought many benefits to Paris. France proved unable to engage the European Union's new member states in its strategic alignment with Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's victory in 2005 also deprived Chirac of Gerhard Schroeder's fundamental support. Berlin has become more Atlanticist since then, and Paris, after the failure of the E.U.'s constitutional referendum, ended up more isolated in Europe. Such European and global political developments weakened Chirac and de Villepin, while reinforcing Sarkozy's image.

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