Besides its deep historical and cultural appeal to Europe and the rest of the world, France has the continent’s one of the largest economies and enjoys significant moral authority and political influence in many parts of the globe. Regardless of all its present weaknesses, the country doubtlessly remains an economic and political heavyweight and influences the direction that Europe and generally the Western world will take.
For this reason, the current presidential elections in France are of great importance.
France has been experiencing serious problems that have increased in magnitude in the last decade. Economic growth is very slow (2% a year, the second slowest in Europe after that of Portugal.). Unemployment stands at a high of 9%. The social welfare system is lavish, while taxes are among the highest in Europe (50% of national GDP). State intervention and regulation of the economy is pervasive, forcing French companies to flee abroad in search of cheap labor force and liberal markets. In addition, France has a rapidly growing immigrant Muslim population (8%, approximately 5 million of the country’s 64 million). Integration of the Muslim community into French society has been a daunting and unsuccessful endeavor. It is a failure that threatens the nation with turbulent times in the future.
France represents the country that so far has not managed an effective transition from its cherished but inefficient social welfare system to a more demanding and competitive liberal economy in the age of globalization. Looking at the country’s multiple and profound problems many gloomily predict the inevitable demise of once glorious France.
The outgoing president Jacques Chirac, who ruled France for past twelve years, failed to reform the country despite such promises.
Mr.Chirac blundered in foreign policy as well. He had a lion’s share in causing the biggest rift within the Western world in recent history, when he (along with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) opposed the American led Iraq War in 2003. The opposition to the war temporarily raised Mr. Chirac’s dismal approval rating at home, but greatly damaged the unity of the Free World. It weakened the international position of France, weakened the West in general and benefited anti-Western forces in the Middle East, Russia and further a field. After the Iraq war broke up, Chirac’s France rapidly moved closer to the increasingly anti-American and anti-Western bias of Putin’s Russia, while simultaneously increasing France’s dependence on Russian energy resources.
Mr. Chirac strongly backed the new European Constitution, designed to create a politically and economically more integrated European Union as a counterweight to the United States. In the 2004 referendum French voters rejected the constitution, once again revealing the existing deep crisis in the country. The rejection was a natural reaction of the people afraid of globalization, tired of unemployment and stagnant economy and frustrated by the elitist and unpopular political system of Jacques Chirac.
The man who is best poised to tackle this mountain of problems seems to be Nikolas Sarkozi, the leader of center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the winner of the first round of France’s presidential elections on April 22. His rival is the candidate of France's Socialist Party Ms. Segolene Royal. Nothing is certain, but most probably Mr. Sarkozy will win the second round as well on May 6. He is already leading in polls.
Nikolas Sarkozy, a son of an aristocratic Hungarian immigrant, is a self-made man. In his early youth, he worked at an ice-cream store and then as flower delivery-boy for two years to support his family. He steadily rose in French politics, serving as Finance Minister and then as Minister of the Interior in Chirac’s cabinet.
In France and through out Europe he is perceived as a politician of a new generation in contrast to a stagnant, elitist and, as many believe, corrupt French political class symbolized by Jacques Chirac. Intelligent, energetic, hard-working and ambitious, Mr.Sarkozy has stamina to tackle the daunting problems of his country. In opposition to his Socialist rival (and all the presidential contenders in the first round) Mr. Sarkozy realizes that without radical reforms France has no future as a great power, thus running a risk of degrading into second ranking nation, ravaged by economic instability and immigration problems.
Mr. Sarkozy clearly sees that in the age of rapid globalization the famous French social model is no longer workable in its current form. His economic program envisages a variety of liberal reforms aimed at transforming this model into a competitive economic system. He promises to reduce the government’s regulatory power and role in the economy. He wants to cut spending in the state’s extravagant social programs, at the same time lowering outrageously high income and property taxes. He plans to liberalize the tight labor market, making hiring and firing easier for French employers. He is highly critical of the country's restrictive 35 hour work week, calling it France's biggest mistake. In order to increase productivity he offers income tax free overtime pay for those who are willing to work more than 35 hours in a week. He preaches privatization in many sectors of the state owned French economy. Nevertheless, straight talker that he is, he has been careful in his speeches, supporting modest state intervention in the industrial sector. He even supported some aspects of France’s social welfare system, so as not to scare French society, indulged in lavish social benefits.
Another major worry is the increase in Islamic fundamentalism in France. Mr. Sarkozy promises special social and educational programs designed to integrate those of the 5 million Arab Muslim population, who are willing, into French society. On the other hand he showed that he can be pretty tough against violence and instability in immigrant communities. During French riots in 2005, he, as an Interior Minister, deported hundreds of illegal immigrants torching shops and cars in French suburbs (Banlieues).
In European politics he is against the revival of the old European Constitution and wants a new comprehensive treaty making the work of European Union (and its large, overloaded bureaucracy) more efficient and fast. Although, Mr.Sarkozy fiercely opposes Turkish membership in the European Union, he is an ardent supporter of NATO’s further eastward expansion despite Russia’s outright opposition to this issue. Besides, Sarkozy stresses urgent need to diversify France’s and Europe’s energy sources and reduce dangerous dependence on unreliable and aggressive Russia.
Mr. Sarkozy is a great Atlantist, openly admiring the United States (in a country with quite strong anti-American sentiments) and pledging to revive close French alliance with America. He offers hope to heal the wounds within the Western world inflicted by his predecessors.
The message which Nikolas Sarkozy brings is the message of fundamental reform, strong France, strong Europe and Western unity, so interlinked and so necessary in today’s turbulent world.
Despite the differences in their social-economic models (of the same capitalist system) both Europe and America share the same values based on personal freedom, universal human rights and the rule of law. These are the values that were born, developed and institutionalized in the West, and have further influenced the rest of the world. A united and strong Western world is essential in the face of today’s dangerous challenges coming from different parts of the world. Rising militarized Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, increasingly authoritarian, anti-Western and aggressive Russia and nuclear proliferation of totalitarian regimes on the Eurasian continent, are just part of the dangers threatening current international system and the universal principles of freedom, all that the West stands for.
Mr. Sarkozy’s victory is much needed for France, for Europe and for the Western world in general. Will the French people match his energy, determination and passion for change and reform? Or instead of the reformist road will they choose to stay in their warm but inefficient social shell that eventually will explode into a cataclysmic revolution, like the ones experienced by France once every half century? In either of these scenarios, Europe and the West will certainly feel the impact on its own skin.