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Sarko: The man who would change France

February 18, 2007 ~ 8:34 p.m.

The modernising face of France's Socialist Party, Segolene Royal, has certainly seen better days. At one time, she was enchanting the electorate and enjoyed a marginal lead over the man they call Sarko. Now, however, Royal's campaign has quite nearly crashed and burned, opening the door for another modernizer, the aforementioned Nicolas Sarkozy, to run away with the vote.

Now, I would like to state for the record that Royal seems like sincere woman and she certainly did have big plans for the Socialists by questioning the 35-hour work week and championing zero tolerance law-and-order as she did. However, this sounds uncomfortably like Britain's New Labour. Ms. Royal would only have faced harsh criticism from within her own party and the far Left in France have rejected her. So, with the a hefty chunk of the Left deserting her and no significant votes to count on from the Right, Royal pretty much looks finished.

Enter Sarkozy, who is the candidate for Jacques Chirac's party, the center-right UMP. But Sarkozy is nothing like Chirac. Jacques Chirac was a conservative under a French definition of the term only—a jealous Gaullist, paranoid of the "Anglos." Sarkozy, in sharp contrast, enjoys close relations with Britain—he was recently feted in London by Tony Blair—and has expressed admiration for, and a desire to work with, the United States.

Chirac has refused to endorse Sarkozy, due to both personal as well as political matters. In fact, according to Jonathan Fenby in his book The Trouble with France, it is par for the course that French politicians from the same party fall out and refuse to lend their support once an underling vies for the top job. Fenby writes, rather amusingly, "Take any element of French life and it will almost certainly contain rival factions." Sarkozy is Giscard d'Estaing to Chirac's De Gaulle. Envious of Sarkozy's ambition and popularity, and disgusted by his transatlanticism, Chirac will leave politics silently and sullenly.

Nicolas Sarkozy now stands as the people's choice, but Sarkozy himself once struggled for acceptance. The son of immigrants, a Hungarian father and Greek Jewish mother, Sarko felt out-of-place growing up and admitted that he did not "feel French," despite being a Roman Catholic and speaking only French, having never learned Hungarian from his father. Sarkozy was determined to fit in to French society, however, and fought his way through the ranks, becoming mayor of the Parisian suburban town of Neuilly in 1983, a position he held for nearly 20 years. Even mayors in France can wield considerable political influence, allowing them to make a name for themselves. Sarkozy became Interior Minister in Chirac's cabinet in 2002.

Sarkozy rose to the limelight in 2005 when he referred to disenfranchised youths in Paris, and those responsbile for the riots across Paris and elsewhere in France, as "rabble." Although some unfairly put him in the same far Right class as Jean-Marie Le Pen, many others saw a plain-talking man willing to tell it like it is. He has attacked the 35-hour week and is seen as tough on crime and willing to crack down on offenders, thus stealing Royal's thunder. Sarkozy has also criticized immigration policy and the EU, and has even, daringly, championed the "Anglo" economic model.

Sarkozy has the charisma to woo the electorate, but the important thing for Sarko to remember is that the French electorate will be voting for change. So he must deliver on his promise to shake up the system and reform France, put people to work, rescue the French economy, repair relations with Britain and the U.S., all the while championing France as a world power and not giving an inch of French pride away. It seems like a hard job, but it is the sort of task which a "hyperactive, ambitious workaholic"—in the words of a Sarkozy biographer—should relish.

– M.E.M.

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Copyright © 2001-2007 by M.E. Manning. All material is written by me, unless explicitly stated otherwise by use of footnotes or bylines. Do not copy or redistribute without my permission.

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