Super Sarko's Swingin' Reform Moves

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/04/2007 01:36:00 AM
Never did it occur to me to compare French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Muhammad Ali, but the International Herald Tribune does just that in the following article. Love him or loathe him, the man is fleet of foot and packs a wallop. Topping even that, Sarko himself is now comparing himself to the arch-reformer Margaret Thatcher. Mais oui! In the short span that's he's been in office, he's made more moves to get France--I'm not too fond of using the word, but what the heck--competitive again than his sclerotic predecessors Mitterand and Chirac. He's already removed overly generous pensions for public sector workers and now he's keen on getting rid of the 35-hour workweek that has become symbolic of France's excessively laid back culture. His juggernaut rolls on, and it could actually be rather good for France. French rent-seeker everywhere, fear Super Sarko's swingin' reform moves:

Muhammad Ali once claimed he was so fast he could flick off the switch on his bedside lamp and slide under the covers before the light went out. Also blessed with supreme self-confidence and a taste for speed, Nicolas Sarkozy explained recently, "I'm not stopping, I'm accelerating."

"One day," he predicted, "you'll say I was as much a reformer as Margaret Thatcher" [!...make that !!!]

There's substance to Sarkozy's ambition. As an agent of change, working against the still-life backdrop of most of Fran├žois Mitterrand's and Jacques Chirac's quarter century in power, this president, after six months on the job, seems like a man locked in sprint mode.

In four November weeks, he waited out a public services strike to banish the principle of special pension deals that made working less and retiring with extra cash the symbol of a pervasive French anti-work ethic. Doubling up, Sarkozy then pointed last Thursday to a path away from the 35-hour workweek, the country's second less-is-more societal beacon. Combined, the measures are culture-altering twins, decisions in Sarkozy's view meant to dissolve the taboos that for a generation made a reactionary concept for the French out of the idea that greater effort equals greater productivity and greater reward.

Add this: A reinvigorated relationship with the United States that takes France out of its old, marginalized role as reflexive antagonist. With it, a plan to return French forces to NATO's integrated command, aimed at showing the new Europe of former Soviet satellites that Paris is a leader ready to guarantee their security in cooperation with the Americans.

Plus dozens of undertakings wrenching from slumber French citizens and their webs of special interest groups. That's a lot for anyone's May to December. Credit Sarkozy's profound knowledge of the operative lanes of French power, gained in years as interior minister, finance minister and head of the Gaullist party. And also consider Sarkozy's get-up-earlier, think-faster personality, his gifts as a pitchman and his truly exceptional drive, which, at times, gives him the big-screen relentlessness of a Hollywood character marked by passion, haste and, maybe, great failings.

So far in this first reel, Sarkozy has been lucky. The leftist opposition is pathetically leaderless and atomized. The traditional trade unions are not in much more cohesive shape. On the right, the statist, nationalist and corporatist opposition to Sarkozy's policies is lamed.

In truth, Sarkozy was also fortunate that a couple of nights of rioting by Arab and African immigrants last week in a Paris suburb - which began after two local teenagers died when their motorcycle collided with a police car - did not spread. The shock effect and seeming pause for reflection created when several police officers were wounded by shotgun fire seemed to defuse the confrontation.

According to Sarkozy, the shooting was purely the work of thugs; and he jumped on those people who he said searched for a "social problem in every riot." In subsequent days, the president said the government would address the issue of "the suburbs" in a report due in mid-January from Fadela Amara, a Sarkozy appointee of North African origin in the housing ministry whose brief is urban affairs.

Then, over the weekend, Sarkozy proclaimed "the health of the French" as his priority for 2008. The fact is, public health service in France is generally good, and concentrating on it involves creating a "me" issue, or one where great numbers of voters see themselves as beneficiaries. In contrast, dealing with racial discrimination and integration are "them" problems, connected to vast antagonisms across the broadest stretches of the population.