Questioning Authority: Penny Gill on Nicolas Sarkozy

Questioning Authority checked in with Penny Gill, Mary Lyon Professor of Humanities and professor of politics, about France’s recent presidential election, in which Nicolas Sarkozy, head of France’s main center-right party, Union for a Popular Movement, prevailed over Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. Here are her thoughts on what Sarkozy’s victory portends for the future of France.

QA: What does the election say about the state of France at this moment?

PG: The remarkable thing about the election is that the French have agreed to be "pushed" (one might almost say, bullied or forced) into major reforms in various aspects of their economy. They have decided, apparently, it is time to bite the bullet and try to become much more competitive in the globalized economy. Part of this is undoubtedly because France has a very sluggish (nearly, the most sluggish) economy in the "old" European Union (EU). Britain and Germany are doing much better, and it "hurts" French pride.

QA: Sarkozy says he wants to make France friendlier to business, tougher on crime, and less appealing to would-be immigrants. To what extent can he achieve these goals?

PG: Well, that depends upon a lot of items. The French institutional arrangements are unlike any, anywhere else. The president has virtually unlimited authority in foreign affairs, and so we can expect significant shift in the tone of French relationships with the U.S. In tone, not so much in substance, would be my guess.

But in domestic affairs, it is much more tricky, and it depends in large part on the willingness of the prime minister/parliament to cooperate with the president's agenda. Sarkozy has good experience in these institutional conflicts and pressures, and may be able to force/cajole support from the parliament. But it is still, in this regard, a parliamentary system, and the parties in parliament play a very important role. I would expect some major shifts in labor market regulation (will the 35-hour work week be repealed or ignored or ??), job creation, corporate regulation, and taxation, and such. France is ready for a national discussion of immigration, integration of minorities, and the necessity of a growing economy to provide work for this new generation of Moslem youth. I would be very surprised if there were any backing off of France's two-century commitment to secularism at the level of the state.

QA: Did Ségolène Royal have any chance of victory? Does her defeat carry any lessons for women candidates, and Hillary Clinton in particular?

PG: Yes, certainly. And I think her defeat did not say anything about women in politics in France. She didn't present herself as someone who would bite all the bullets to get France and the French economy reformed and moving again. She was essentially the candidate of tradition--by speaking about protecting all the entitlements, taking care of the French, etc. The only surprise here is that the French didn't "buy it." They usually do. Voters all over usually do.

This might also have implications for France's role in the EU, and the direction of the EU in the next five years. I can't say more than that, but it will be interesting to watch, especially the huge subsidies to French farmers that are an astonishing piece of the annual budget of the EU. Germany and Britain subsidize French agriculture, if you can believe that. And for the EU to become more supple and effective, that must change. No French president has been willing to budge an inch. Will Sarkozy? It depends on whether he really is a "liberal" in the European sense (in support of markets and less regulation) or whether he will back into the more usual French position of dirigisme--that the French economy must be protected and directed by the state.

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