France with a New Course? Part I
On May 6, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of France for five years. Many claim that he represents something fundamentally new in French politics. The question, however, is whether Sarkozy is really contributing to a radical change in French politics or whether it is more about a change of style. There is little doubt that he differs from his predecessors on both the left and the right.
- What distinguishes Sarkozy’s government?
- In what direction is France going under Sarkozy?
Sarkozy is a staunch supporter of law and order, he is critical of government and he is a pro-US president. He also represents a younger generation of politicians and does not have the elite background that most top French politicians have. In addition, it is the first time a newly divorced president has moved into the presidential palace. Shortly after the election, he appeared on the front pages of all French weekly magazines together with the former top model and singer Carla Bruni. This has provoked reactions even in liberal France, a country located in Europe according to itypetravel.com. Sarkozy’s popularity has declined from 65% support in July 2007 to 39% in February 2008.
2: A «hyperpresident»
The French president has traditionally been responsible for foreign and defense policy and left it to the government and the prime minister to control domestic policy. However, Sarkozy is an atypical French president in this context as well, and Prime Minister Fillon is as invisible as the president is visible. Sarkozy sometimes takes over the government’s work. Examples are when he took over the negotiations with the unions on university reform, when he traveled to Brussels and spoke on the French issue at a meeting of finance ministers and when he surprised the finance minister by announcing that the state would sell another 3% of the French electricity giant EDF. Very few of the ministers have any real authority to act on their own. This form of government has been referred to in the French media as a “hyper-presidential government”.
Under the constitution, the French president has great power. In addition to having authority over the defense, the president can dissolve the National Assembly and replace ministers. Sarkozy is now accused of further trying to strengthen the presidency by amending the constitution. Edouard Balladur, former prime minister and one of Sarkozy’s close supporters, has been tasked with drafting a constitutional amendment. Although the proposal is mainly aimed at strengthening the parliament, it contains points that will strengthen the presidential power considerably. Among other things, it is proposed that the president should have the right to determine domestic policy in addition to foreign and security policy. Today, this is the Prime Minister’s task.
Another change is that the president will have the opportunity to speak in parliament. He has so far not had the opportunity to do so for reasons of balance of power and division of power. Due to these proposals, the editor of the French newspaper Libération has accused Sarkozy of trying to install what he calls an ” elected monarchy “. However, Sarkozy is also planning reforms to strengthen parliament – as a counterweight to the executive: the right to override the president’s appointments and to approve long-term military involvement abroad. In addition, it is proposed to limit the use of decrees – state regulations.
3: Violation of state and trade union dominance?
Four main directions have governed French politics since the so-called 5th Republic was established in 1958:
- Nygaullistene (UMP)
- The Non-Gaullist Right or Center Right (UDF)
- The Socialists (PS)
- The Communists (PC)
In addition, Jean Marie le Pen, the leader of the right-wing radical party Front National (UN), is constantly getting a lot of attention. The dominant grouping is the nygaullists under Sarkozy, who go by the nickname “Sarko” and are seen as more right-wing than previous nygaullists, such as Chirac. However, this has been downplayed since he formed an inclusive government with representatives from both the right and the left in French politics.
In the parliamentary elections, Sarkozy’s party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire – UMP, won a majority. This means that he has an overwhelming power base. Sarkozy wants liberalization and privatization of the economy. This includes a change in the labor laws. He believes these have prevented the creation of new jobs. The purpose is to create greater flexibility in working life in the hope that this will lead to more jobs.
Two other issues are also being negotiated – working hours , which are limited by the controversial 35-hour week introduced by the Socialist government in 2000, and the funding of trade unions, which Sarkozy wants to make more transparent. A major pension reform that will remove the special and very favorable pension schemes within a number of special occupations is also being revised. In addition, he has promised a reform of the old-fashioned and underfunded French university system .
It remains to be seen whether these reforms will be implemented and whether they will strengthen France’s economic growth. It is interesting, however, that no previous government has managed to implement such reforms despite having it on the agenda. Mass demonstrations and strikes have repeatedly forced them to retreat. However, there are weaknesses in Sarkozy’s method as well. It is claimed that the agreements on and proposals for changes will not provide particularly large savings gains after all. Sarkozy will therefore be able to get points for action, but there is still great uncertainty associated with the result.
4: Continuity and change
French foreign policy has long been based on a combination of two pillars.
- A real politic approach with the aim of maintaining France’s status as an important power factor in international politics.
- A more idealistic approach where the goal is to defend and spread the universal principles (human rights, division of power, etc.) inherited from the Enlightenment and the revolution. There is little indication that Sarkozy will break with this tradition. At the same time, it seems that the new president will use other means than his predecessors to achieve these goals.