A New Generation, if not a New Deal, in French Politics

Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected French President, wanted to mark the difference in governing style between himself and outgoing President Jacques Chirac – although both belonged to the same political party and shared basic political orientations.

However Jacques Chirac had spent his second presidential term under the motto – no waves. In foreign policy, Jacques Chirac had taken the lead in opposing the US intervention in Iraq and had created a temporary Germany-Russia-France alliance against the war. In domestic affairs, Chirac had not used his 82 per cent of the vote victory to push for reforms or new social policies. He had advocated a yes vote on the proposed constitution for the European Union (EU), but ran a confusing and indifferent campaign for its ratification. The constitution was rejected by French voters, followed by that of the Netherlands. Since major decisions in the EU must be taken unanimously, the EU’s institutions must function with rules for its 27 states that already had difficulty at 15. The European Union just celebrated the 50th year of its founding with six states. The EU has grown in number but its institutional practices have not been modified in keeping with its size. The constitution proposed being able to reach decisions by majority vote rather than unanimity.

Chirac had participated fully in European affairs as well as in French-African meetings. He seemed happier to deal with foreign questions – a policy area largely reserved to the French President since the first President of the 5th Republic, Charles de Gaulle. Chiric seemed strangely absent from the domestic scene, addressing the nation only on New Year’s eve and the 14 of July, the national holiday.

Thus Sarkozy ran on a program of a "break with the stagnant past" as though he had not been a member of the outgoing government. In fact, during the five years of Chirac’s second term, Sarkozy had served in two key posts – Ministry of the Economy and Ministry of the Interior. If Chirac spent the last five years largely hidden from public view, Sarkozy, with close and friendly relations with journalists, had developed to a fine art the 30-second sound bite. There was hardly a day that he did not appear on the television news, shaking hands with people or for longer interviews on political talk shows. Not everyone liked Sarkozy, but everyone knew that he was there, giving an impression of being everywhere at once – a man of hyper- activity.

Sarkozy has been running for president for the last five years and made no secret of his ambition. In fact ambition is his most obvious trait. Although ideologically on the Right, he does not belong to any of the traditional currents of Right thinking. Political commentators compare him to Napoleon, but this is more his character, there being no longer a Napoleonic ideology. Sarkozy is like Napoleon in being short, giving an impression of boundless energy, and being an outsider. Napoleon was born when Corsica was not yet French and yet he came to symbolize French power. Sarkozy’s father was a minor noble from Hungary who left Hungary when the Communists took over in 1948. He came to France and married a young law student of Greek-Jewish background. Sarkozy’s father abandoned the family after the third child was born and gave no financial support. Nicolas Sarkozy’s mother finished law school and went to work for the city administration of Neuilly, a Paris suburb with many rich and powerful people. Sarkozy grew up there as an the outsider among the rich.

Sarkozy has the characteristics attributed to the self-made man: If I can do it with hard work, then everybody should be able to do it with hard work. His admiration for the USA is based on the American myth of a place where anyone can get ahead if he tries hard enough and also as the land that gave an opportunity to Hungarian refugees after the 1956 revolt. John F. Kennedy is his model, even if Kennedy was hardly an outsider or a self-made man. Like Kennedy, Sarkozy is happy to show off his beautiful wife and five good looking children and to be seen doing energetic sports, in Sarkozy’s case, jogging. Sarkozy’s admiration for the USA is unlikely to carry over to admiration for all US policies, especially in foreign relations.

In keeping with the image of youth and activity, Sarkozy has named a government of persons considered activists and with a personal image of being willing to take risks to get things done. The most telling image is that of the new Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who had earlier served in the Socialist-led government of Francois Mitterand as minister of humanitarian affairs and the minister of health. Kouchner was also the UN administrator for Kosovo and left a good reputation in UN circles for his work there. In France Kouchner is best known as a leading founder of Medecins Sans Frontiers which won the Nobel Prize for Peace. As a young doctor Kouchner had gone for the Red Cross to Biafra during the Nigeria-Biafra war. There he was frustrated by the Red Cross prohibitions on reporting what he saw. Thus he created an NGO that could both heal and speak out. They became well known for their efforts to pick up boat people leaving Vietnam by sea and later working behind Soviet lines in Afghanistan

Kouchner also has never been shy in front of a TV camera, no doubt advised by his wife who is a leading news commentator on French TV. Sarkozy has also named to the government Martin Hirsch, a civil servant who was president of Emmaus, the organization founded by l’Abbe Pierre to help the homeless. In France, the president of an NGO is an unpaid position and is not a full-time administrator. Hirsch had been the chief civil servant when Kouchner was minister of health. Hirsch will be in charge of a newly created post in the government: High Commissioner for National Solidarity, to deal with the homeless and long-term unemployed.

As ecology and sustainable development was a strong theme during the campaign – although all the candidates were in agreement that something needs to be done – Sarkozy has named Alain Juppe – a former Prime Minister who saw himself as a potential president but who does not have the political skills of Sarkozy – as the number two of the government in a new post to deal with ecology and sustainable development as well as transport.

Sarkozy has named a government of people to mark the change of generation from Jacques Chirac and to create a new style of government seen to be acting and in close contact with the people. We will have to wait to see if this will remain public relations image-building or will translate itself into policy and action.

Rene Wadlow is the editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO Representative to the United Nations, Geneva. Photo from Wikipedia.org