Getting Cosy With Sarko


The incoming French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has much to learn when he takes up his post on 16 May. A brilliant debater and disciplined campaigner, Sarkozy must learn, above all, how to carry the French public with him when he introduces the much-needed reforms he has planned.

Some of those reforms include lowering personal taxes, public debt and unemployment, introducing more realistic public service and welfare conditions, and increasing taxes on imported goods from countries, like Australia, which have not signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Political leaders worldwide know that their best chance of making a difference comes in their first year in office after that, dissatisfaction rises. Even their supporters start to forget that their leader was, indeed, the one they chose on election day.

If there is one thing the new French President with that very un-French name can be sure of, it is that the 47 per cent of the electorate who voted against him will be much better organised than the 53 per cent who dropped a ballot paper with Sarkozy’s name on it into the perspex ballot box at their local polling station on Sunday.

‘Resistance’ is both an honoured word and a devout tradition in France, and the Left still controls many of the nation’s basic structures. These include not only the unions, but also many professional associations representing groups as diverse as teachers and magistrates.

Sarkozy is a man of power and passion his supporters say he welcomes risks that other politicians would never touch. However, in the few days he still has before he takes up his new job (he is variously reported as ‘gone yachting’ in Malta or holed up in a monastery) he would be wise to study the career of the late US President, Lyndon Johnson or even former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.

As a Senate Majority Leader in 1957, Johnson wanted to push the Civil Rights Bill through a recalcitrant US Senate. He secured the final two votes he needed by shamelessly promising a new dam on the Snake River in the Rocky Mountains. Shocked years later by race riots in Black suburbs around the US, Johnson, by then President, asked his aides to find the poorest Whites in America rural hillbillies in US mountain country and directed that the ground-breaking poverty-relief measures of his ‘Great Society’ initiatives be targeted (publicly, at least) at them, rather than poor Blacks whose poverty had led them to despair and riots.

Yet, Johnson’s main aim was still to reduce poverty in America’s Black ghettoes he just knew that it would not be politically correct to say so. The strategy worked. As Johnson explained later, it is better to have powerful people ‘inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.’

Nicolas Sarkozy

Confrontation can work (and the ‘hardline’ Sarkozy has used it to his advantage) but it burns political capital very quickly. The first signs of resistance to Sarkozy appeared on the night he was elected. There was a small riot at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, some trouble in the capital’s outer suburbs, and demonstrations in Lille, Nantes, Rennes, Lyon and Marseilles. It was reported that hundreds of cars were set alight in some of those disturbances.

(French police, however, reported that the level of trouble was not that much greater than during an ordinary night in France where an average of ‘just over 100 cars are set ablaze’ a comment that is more than a little disturbing.)

Many French voters are partly blaming Sarkozy’s Socialist rival Ségolène Royal for Sunday night’s flare-ups. Her prediction, in the final days of the campaign, that there would be violence in the streets if Sarkozy won was merely the last gaffe of a clumsy campaign. It was talking like a loser.

In the penultimate week of the campaign, when Ségolène was actually gaining on her rival, she briefly pushed Sarkozy onto the back foot. ‘Why all the hatred?’ he asked, no less than 46 times, in one speech as he tried to soften his image. In Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots began, the response to Sarkozy’s question was immediate:

‘How does he dare ask that?’ said Moussa Traoré, a 22-year-old Frenchman of Malian origin who has lived in Clichy all his life. ‘He is not the victim, he is the perpetrator. If he becomes President,’ Traoré added darkly, ‘France will burn again.’

Paul Keating once famously described Australia as an ‘industrial museum.’ The two key measures which transformed it into a more modern economy were the Hawke/Keating Labor Government’s floating of the Australian dollar and the cutting of tariffs.

By contrast, no politician with any real hope of winning dares talk of tariff cuts in the highly protected French economy. The French have a history of seeking State-centred, or ‘dirigiste,’ solutions. Farm protection levels are high and industrial protection makes the Toyotas, Nissans and Kias which clog cities in other parts of the world rare sights in France.

But, although the price for high protection includes slow economic growth and high unemployment, even the supposedly ‘brutal’ Sarkozy refuses to (publicly) recognise the fact. And if Royal had any major reforms on her economic agenda, she never let the public know. (Indeed, one of her key economic advisers, Eric Besson, became so disillusioned during the campaign that he deserted Royal and joined the Sarkozy camp. That was not a good sign.)

Sarkozy’s undoubted power, passion and discipline even his formidable intelligence will not help him achieve his stated goals, unless he adds a pinch of rat cunning to his recipes.

Like Sarkozy, both Lyndon Johnson and Paul Keating were seen as straight-talking politicians. Sarkozy could do worse than learn how to be as wily as these leaders.

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