Omni-president Sarkozy seeks a fourth way

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France’s armchair political strategists argue there are three ways to reform. One option is to emulate Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister who prised the trade unions’ grip from the choke-holds of the economy and liberated her people’s entrepreneurial energies.

Another is to reform by stealth, the traditional French method. Proclaim all the necessary rhetoric about social solidarity in public and sneak in changes beneath the table.

The third possibility is to buy out economic “insiders” in both public and private sectors. For example, give a lump sum to railway workers today to ensure they retire tomorrow.

President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have ignored this theoretical advice as being either too confrontational, cowardly or costly. Instead, he is championing a fourth way, which could perhaps be best summarised as reform by exhortation.

By means of a ceaseless barrage of reform rhetoric and saturation media coverage, France’s omni-president – as he has been called – has been urging his compatriots to embrace change. His election victory shows that the French people want reform, he claims. His high popularity ratings since the elections suggest he retains much political capital in the bank.

Mr Sarkozy has made it clear he is not working from an ideological blueprint; he is guided by what has worked elsewhere and can be made to work in France. He defies all simple classifications as a Gaullist, a Thatcherite, a liberal or a conservative. Anyone and everyone can support his project.

It is therefore naive to expect Mr Sarkozy to be ideologically coherent or even intellectually consistent. Like many politicians of the 21st century, his only guiding principle appears to be to remould his country in his own self-image as a bold, risk-taking (political) entrepreneur.

Mr Sarkozy has certainly succeeded in radically changing France’s political discourse – in itself a striking accomplishment. He has also entrusted a 43-member commission, headed by Jacques Attali, the socialist luminary, to push the debate further and recommend ways to remove the roadblocks blocking faster economic growth. Mr Attali certainly seems to be relishing his role as an official agent provocateur.

Not only has Mr Sarkozy been softening up public opinion, he has also neutered his opposition. He has invited members of the opposition Socialist and centrist parties into his government to create a broader cross-party consensus for reform and encouraged Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the flagbearer of the Socialist party’s social democratic wing, to decamp to Washington to run the International Monetary Fund. In so doing, Mr Sarkozy has “unplugged the Socialist party’s brain”, says a supporter.

Tactically, too, Mr Sarkozy is something different. One of his lieutenants explains that previous reformers adopted the Napoleonic principle of concentrating all your forces on one point and pushing for a breakthrough. The trouble was that this allowed the opposition to mobilise and stalled progress elsewhere.

The goal now is to advance on all fronts simultaneously: granting more autonomy to universities, cutting taxes on overtime, reforming labour laws and ending special pension regimes for privileged public sector workers, diffusing opposition across a broader front. This may make it more difficult to claim a single, decisive victory in the reform war but it enables the government to win many smaller engagements.

Mr Sarkozy has also shown a willingness to consult and compromise. His government is engaging in intensive consultations with the trade unions and is picking its battlegrounds with care. It is better to shoot for 100 per cent and settle for 60 per cent than to achieve nothing at all, his ministers argue.

Watching Mr Sarkozy in action is proving a compelling spectator sport. But there are three big doubts about the efficacy of his reform approach. The first is whether it will prove coherent and comprehensive enough. Mr Sarkozy may be right that France in 2007 is not Britain in 1979. Marginal, incremental reform may be enough to revitalise France. Still, the worry is that his piecemeal reforms might never achieve the critical mass needed to succeed.

Second, pragmatism sounds fine in theory. The question is whether it can work in practice. Pragmatism can mean everything and nothing. You could hardly accuse former president Jacques Chirac of not being pragmatic. But after the failed reforms of 1995-97 he seems to have concluded that France was unreformable. The pragmatic response was to do very little.

The high participation rate in last week’s transport strike suggests “the street” might remain more militant than the government had anticipated. In spite of his aggressive talk, the unions might sense that Mr Sarkozy has a fragile chin.

Third, the economic context is vital, but largely out of Mr Sarkozy’s control. He had clearly hoped the benign global environment would boost French economic growth, cutting unemployment further and bolstering support for reform. But eurozone growth is softening. That explains why Mr Sarkozy is trying to buy time by running loose public finances and is shifting blame on to the European Central Bank.

It is too early to say whether Mr Sarkozy’s “fourth way” will succeed. His dynamism and courage are to be admired. But there remains much room for doubt. If events move against him, he may have to revert to the armchair strategists’ play-book.

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