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New era for France

By Theda Braddock (correspondent in Paris)
Posted May 10, 2007

France is about to enter a new era.

Nicolas Sarkozy, former leader of the Union pour Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party was elected Sunday with a 53.06 percent majority.  The second round of voting saw him facing off against the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, the other leading contender to come out of the April 22 first round.

Sarkozy was the Minister of the Interior during the 2005 riots that broke out in Parisian suburbs.  His hard line, no nonsense measures, were viewed as a threat to many and were pitted against the feminine populist approach chosen by Royal, creating a fierce campaign.  The president-elect (who will officially take over the Elysee May 16) is a second-generation immigrant who has led his life in the political arena.  His rise to power began as a lawyer and he followed his party and outgoing president Jacques Chirac to several notable positions, including Minister of Finance and two terms as Minister of the Interior.  Royal has also worked her share of political positions including Minister of the Environment, and was most recently a deputy for the National Assembly, representing the Deux Sevres region.

Neither of the candidates was viewed with a considerable amount of appreciation.  Daily polls run by Ipsos and local newspapers showed that about one-third of French voters were undecided throughout the election and a third candidate, Francois Bayrou, was seen as a viable contender, at times earning nearly as much or more percentage than the two principal candidates in polls.  Respondents indicated that he should have made it to the second round because he had the potential of beating out his opponent and becoming president.

            In the end the choice was between Sarkozy and Royal, both calling for a massive overhaul of the French system.  Sarkozy’s more notable proposals included a reworking of the French economy with a lowering of taxes to 50 percent, and paving the way for workers to opt for more working hours.  The French 35-hour work week has long been seen has an inhibitor to the economy and the Sarkozy team argued that without these constraints the French could work more, earn more and spend more, boosting the consumer economy.

            Madame Royal evoked the same goals but proposed that salaries should be higher and that taxes should not be lowered.  The economy became a principal issue in the campaign and a great impediment to Royal who often refused to address the subject with direct responses or solutions.  A huge turn came when one of her principal advisors quit her campaign and published a book bashing her reform plans. In the end a significant majority, 86 percent of voters who participated in the second round, cited the economy as their main reason for choosing their opponent.

            Other hot topics included plans for the retirement system, the environment, and education.  In fact, it was this last issue that sparked a heated round in the only presidential debate held between Sarkozy and Royal several days before the election.  Sarkozy listed off a number of suggestions including increased acceptance for handicapped children. Royal, infuriated, fired back saying that Mr. Sarkozy’s plan was unacceptable, that he was a liar and asked why his government, led by the UMP party the last decade, hadn’t done anything to correct this problem previously.  Sarkozy kept his calm but accused Royal of losing her cool and calling her behavior unacceptable for a presidential debate.

            Direct face-offs like this were few and far between during the campaign, but neither team hesitated to highlight the others’ mistakes.  Sarkozy, a conservative Napoleon-like figure, was criticized for his openness to Americans and his willingness to work with President Bush.  Photos of Sarkozy and Bush together during one of the former Minister’s trips were published often with unkindly captions and Madame Royal heavily emphasized her fears on what such a relation could bring.  Sarkozy’s biggest detriment was his reaction to the 2005 riots and his strong stance on immigration, in which he wants to regulate more heavily by creating a new department. During the fury of the riots, stemming from the death of a young teen hiding from the police in a heavily immigrant populated neighborhood, Sarkozy used the term Karcher, a brand for a powerful hose, in a speech about cleaning up the problematic suburbs.  The company Karcher took a stand and published a page long advertisement in Le Monde asking readers to drop the word association, but it was too late in the campaign. The term became an insult to Sarkozy and his activists. 

            Criticism of Royal centered on her disassociation with her party and her ongoing political gaffes, from a trip to China where she wore white, the symbol of mourning on a visit to the Great Wall to mix-ups in the Middle East. Not to mention a complete refusal to work with President Bush.  The heart of her message was her initiative to unite the French people and call for French populist ‘juries’ to come together and help form policies.  At times her appeal for a participation-oriented government seemed unrealistic-- he was even booed at one of her meetings by her own supporters. In general, voters found that this idea detracted from the role and stature of a would-be president.  Moreover, her general themes came across as soft and impractical as she promised higher budgets in many governmental departments, but obstinately refused to consider raising taxes and explain where the money would come from.

            May 6 was not only a day when France found itself with a new president, but it was a day of greater change as well.  Royal’s Socialist party (PS) spoke out shortly after the results were announced with leaders openly stating the party was in a crisis and implying Segolene’s campaign was partially to blame.  PS leaders, along with third candidate Francois Bayrou’s new Mouvement Democratique party, will be campaigning heavily in the next few weeks as a third round of elections come—this time for the all-important National Assembly.  With the UMP in control of the presidency, other parties are hoping to gain ground to win over a share of government control.  As for Sarkozy, who has escaped for a short trip to Malta to work off campaign stress and prepare his new government, there will be a heavy program waiting with numerous promises to fulfill.


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