au revoir chirac, bonjour sarkozy

Posted on May 16, 2007

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After 12 years of malaise under Jacques Chirac, France ushered in a hyper-kinetic Nicolas Sarkozy as the new president of the French republic.

Will Sarkozy be able to make the changes he has promised? Will the French have to work more? Is France likely to be revitalized under Sarkozy?

It will be interesting to see if he can face down the most daunting challenge to French presidents: demonstrations. Sarkozy’s predecessors have usually backed down in the face of massive demonstrations and protests out in the streets. It’s hardly going to be easy for Sarkozy, with two of the biggest groups – students and unions – publicly stating their opposition to his proposed measures of university reform and ensuring minimum service during strikes.

Detractors have said that many French governments have usually started their terms promising changes, only to be gradually disillusioned or paralyzed by the French population’s resistance to change. So why would the Sarkozy presidency be any different?

For a start, Sarkozy does have a more reasonable chance of fulfilling his goals, given the comfortable margin by which he won the election, on his platform that France needs to change. It’s a sign that the French are perhaps finally tired of the dysfunction in their system and are betting on Sarkozy being the one to make the necessary changes.

Sarkozy also seemed to have learnt from his previous rival and prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s mistake last year of pushing through the job contract for younger people stealthily and then having to make an embarrassing climbdown as youths took to the streets in revolt, effectively killing his shot at the presidency. Sarkozy will instead follow a plan of having open discussions and persuasion before enacting reforms, making them more palatable to the public while avoiding the kind of fiasco de Villepin had experienced.

Appointing a cabinet with those from outside of his Gaullist circle, like the opposition Socialist party, is another way Sarkozy is hoping to win over the opposition. The word is out that he has offered the foreign ministry portfolio to Bernard Kouchner, the founder of the Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières and a former Socialist health minister. Sarkozy has also reached out to unions and promised to hold conferences on labor issues.

The next five years ahead ought to be interesting for France and Sarkozy. Here’s hoping he will reform France without it losing its allure or essence.

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