The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the next president of France was greeted with a light smattering of riots across the country. Mr Sarkozy knows that could be just the aperitif. There is a real risk of social unrest, as France’s new president tries to deliver on his promise of “rupture” with the past.
Mr Sarkozy knows that three prime ministers of the Chirac era – Alain Juppé, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Dominique de Villepin – were forced to abandon economic reforms in the face of popular demonstrations. But he is determined that things will be different this time. One member of the Sarkozy inner circle argues that previous rounds of reform failed because President Jacques Chirac lost his nerve. With “Nicolas” in the Élysée palace, things will be different.
The new president will certainly need nerves of steel because the reforms he hopes to push through in his first 100 days in office could almost be designed to antagonise every strike-happy interest group in the country.
The public-sector unions are already making threatening noises about the plan to mandate minimum levels of service on public transport during strikes. Mr Sarkozy’s pledge to introduce a more flexible work contract – making it easier to hire and fire – puts back on the table the issue that provoked the last big anti-reform demonstrations. His promised reform of the 35-hour working week will also be seen as an attack on semi-sacred “social rights”.
Students could be angered by Mr Sarkozy’s promise to grant universities more autonomy. Some will see that as a mandate for higher fees and tougher entrance requirements. Mr Sarkozy is well aware that student demonstrations have caused massive upheaval in France before – even the mighty de Gaulle lost his nerve in the face of the demonstrations of May 1968.
The biggest powder kegs in France are the run-down, immigrant housing estates that ring Paris and other large cities. It was these estates that experienced three consecutive weeks of rioting in 2005 – and Mr Sarkozy is deeply unpopular among some residents after infamously describing rioters as “scum”.
In fact, some Sarkozy proposals should benefit unemployed immigrants. Unusually for a French politician, he has been prepared to endorse “positive discrimination”. But these pledges may be over-shadowed by his promises of a security crackdown and new laws on juvenile delinquency.
Unions, students, the unemployed and disaffected racial minorities make for a potentially volatile cocktail. Precisely for this reason, Mr Sarkozy went out of his way to sound conciliatory on Sunday night. “Tonight is not a victory of one France over another,” he insisted. His appeal for national reconciliation was oddly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s words when she took office in 1979 – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – a statement that served as the prologue for years of bitter social conflict.
The parallel between Mr Sarkozy and Baroness Thatcher is one you hear a lot in France – from people close to the new president, from Sarkozy voters and from academics. Georges de Menil, an economist and author of Common Sense – How to Unblock French Society, cites the Thatcher reforms as an inspiration; proof that it is possible for a country to break out of a cycle of decline.
There are certainly distinct echoes of Thatcherism – both in Mr Sarkozy’s analysis of what is wrong with France and in some of his specific proposals. Sarkozyism, like Thatcherism, draws upon a deep anxiety about national decline. The new French president, like the former British prime minister, has promised to reward the hard-working and to crack down on shirkers. He also wants to cut taxes and to insist on secret ballots before strikes are called.
But Thatcherism à la française may be much harder to implement than the original model – for three main reasons. First, the sense of national decline was much more pervasive in Britain in 1979 than in modern France. France’s debt is rising ominously but Britain actually had to call in the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s. The French are fed up with strikes. But they have not had to live through an equivalent of Britain’s “winter of discontent”. Mr Sarkozy writes that “we are falling back in the rankings of the great nations” and points out that “British GDP is now 10 per cent higher than that of France”. But, as he himself notes, at the end of the 1970s Britain’s gross domestic product was 25 per cent below that of France. Many French public services still work very well. The case for change was much more obvious in 1970s Britain than it is in today’s France.
The second major difference between the Thatcher and Sarkozy programmes is that the new French president has promised to get cracking in his first 100 days in office. By contrast, Lady Thatcher moved quite cautiously. It was only after her second electoral victory – and the huge boost gained after winning the Falklands war – that she embarked on her biggest battle with the unions and the miners.
Perhaps the greatest contrast between Sarkozy’s France and Thatcher’s Britain is that her emphasis on the market economy made sense to most of her fellow citizens. Mr Sarkozy cannot be so sure. An opinion poll in 2005 found that while 74 per cent of Chinese people, 71 per cent of Americans and 66 per cent of Britons said they were in favour of the market economy, just 34 per cent of the French agreed.
The Thatcher reforms also took place in a country with little or no revolutionary tradition, that traditionally takes a dim view of “troublemakers”. Class and regional divisions in Britain also helped Lady Thatcher. Very few of her core voters felt much solidarity with the striking miners.
By contrast, Mr Sarkozy has to force through reforms in a country that loves to talk about “solidarity”. He also has to deal with a population brought up to regard street protests as an honoured part of the national heritage. The fact that Sunday night’s disturbances in Paris broke out in the Place de la Bastille underlines that this particular French tradition has deep historical roots. Like any good conservative, Mr Sarkozy has made much of his veneration for his country’s history. But he must hope that France’s revolutionary tradition will now be honoured in the history books, rather than on the streets.
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