Nicolas Sarkozy’s resounding victory gives him a clear mandate for change. This is at least the way he chose to interpret it Sunday (6 May) night. But the mandate would have been even clearer, had Sarkozy clearly and unequivocally campaigned for the radical changes France’s economy still needs after years of hesitation.
As it is, with as many campaign speeches devoted to “protecting” French people against globalization as harangues for getting back on the high-growth wagon, the risk is that Sarkozy will be able to interpret his victory as he sees fit, depending on circumstances.
But victory nights are moments for optimism. Those who hope that radical Sarko will get the better of conservative Sarko will have to go by a few tests in the next six months. True, the new President won’t be able to truly govern until a new parliament is elected in the second half of June.
But he can already say a lot by then. He can appoint a prime minister, and choose a temporary cabinet. And he can also indicate which reforms he intends to launch by September.
Sarko’s stated reform intentions are of two kinds. Those dealing with the public-sector machine, which he wants to streamline. And those intended to whip the private sector into shape. If Sarko, as widely expected, gets a strong parliamentary majority to back him, he can reform the 35-hour week law to allow people who want to work more.
He can launch the wide negotiations he said he wants, with unions about the practicalities of a minimum service in public transport in case of strikes. And he can start tackling the pensions system.
All of these are potential minefields, as he will have to both cajole and pressure France’s public-sector unions, at the risk of a showdown. So, in the months to come, and before he comes up with his first real budget next October, the real test of Sarko’s “change” will be whether he seems ready to leverage his victory to take on the entrenched interests that have traditionally made France so difficult to reform.