The Sarkozy Factor: France's Big Decision

Article excerpt

The French political world appears to be ready for change. At issue is not just the non vote in the referendum for the European Constitution in May 2005: discontent soars over the relatively dismal performance of the economy, debate rages over the sustainability of the French social model in the face of globalization, and questions abound about France's role in an enlarged Europe and in the wider world. The looming presidential election in 2007 will mold the shape of politics to come. In all likelihood, the ailing President Jacques Chirac will not run again, and, given the disunity of the left, the candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party will probably win. Though Prime Minister Dominique De Villepin is a loyalist and likely successor to the Gaullist Chirac, many believe the role of savior belongs to Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious Interior Minister and head of the UMP. If Sarkozy can successfully juggle populism with capitalism, he has a good chance of victory.

Sarkozy's pragmatism has steered him into the limelight of French politics. He entered the French government as interior minister in 2002, serving as the finance minister for several months and becoming the UMP chairman in November 2004. Throughout this period, Sarkozy has built an image as a straight talker unafraid to dive headlong into controversial issues and with zero tolerance for crime, especially during the French riots in late 2005. Straight talk is undeniably what the French people need as they come to terms with their country's decline in power over the last few decades, its relative loss of importance in Europe following the EU expansion, its failure to integrate fully its African and Muslim minorities, and its ailing social model, which has created unacceptable levels of unemployment.

Sarkozy has experienced friction with the ruling elite and has some stark differences with Chirac and De Villepin. Ever since he supported a rival candidate in the 1995 presidential election, Sarkozy's relationship with the president has been testy. Chirac, as well as De Villepin, opposes the United States on Iraq, favors Franco-German primacy in the European Union, and staunchly supports the French socio-economic model. In all these areas, Sarkozy is quite the prodigal son.

Sarkozy and De Villepin present two different visions of France in the international arena. The latter appears to promise a continuation of Chirac's foreign policy. …