If French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy puts his l’argent where his mouth is, France could well herald a new era in its history. While Euro-pundits chatter on about whether this signals a victory for Anglo-Saxon market politics in the heart of the continent, the real issue that marks Mr Sarkozy’s ascension to the Palais de l’Elysées is whether he will be able to mend and lead a united France. The son of a Hungarian immigrant and the first President to have been born after World War II, Mr Sarkozy brings with him qualities that are either loved or loathed. Not too many people have forgotten his description of young delinquents as ‘racaille’ (rabble) prior to the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris. But to see Mr Sarkozy simply as a baton wielding Coriolanus is manufacturing a caricature.
France has a penchant for worrying whenever a figure challenging the status quo appears on the scene. A General de Gaulle was seen as a post-World War harbinger of militarism in a democratic set-up; a Leftist Mitterrand was seen as the opener of a can of communists during the Cold War. Mr Sarkozy is similarly being seen by his opponents as a person who will be the creator of a new Fortress France. But the real reason why the new President won against his more wishy-washy rival, Segolene Royal, is not because the people of France are suddenly demanding a boot camp master, but because France needs the discipline thatMr Sarkozy has promised to bring.
It is a matter of good fortune to be a citizen of early 21st century France — with the all-important rider that the citizen has the other good fortune of being employed. Unfortunately, France has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and unless drastic measures are taken, the country will remain a prime example of one of the “sick men of Europe”. And that is where Mr Sarkozy’s plan to cut taxes and breaking the glass ceiling of 36 working hours a week can only help. As for his tough immigration policy, he may have just pulled the rug from under the extreme Right. Under Mr Sarkozy, France will probably be a less romantic place to be in. But then, romanticism for all of France can come only after serious practical problems are taken care of. And to give Mr Sarkozy credit where it’s due, he has identified these problems even before taking over as President.