Sunday, May 13, 2007
Reform Or Stalemate
This article in The Economist might just be the best one I've read so far on the implications of Nicolas Sarkozy's election as President of France. It perfectly captures the many contradictions he represents, contradictions that make it very hard to pin down just how his presidency will play out.
He uses provocative language and has a confrontational style, while emphasizing consensus in his method of governing. He is an Atlanticist (ie. sympathetic to America and England) while remaining no less a Gaullist in trade and foreign policy. He is young and dynamic, while using traditional values (work, law & order) to justify his program of change.
Sarkozy will face a lot of resistance, because while his initial reform package might seem innocuous to an American, it takes on added significance when put in the context of French politics. Particularly his declared intention to limit the power of the unions, which is very clearly a first step towards consolidating a later package of reforms.
The unions officially represent a very small minority of workers, but wield a disproportionate amount of power for two reasons. First, they are designated by statute as the official representatives of all workers in negotiating private sector contract and employment standards with the government. Second, while they represent a minority, it's a militant minority that's managed to paralyse the country through street mobilizations and transport strikes anytime a government has tried to impose reform from above.
The unions and the street have traditionally been regarded as an emergency break, protecting aquired social privileges for all French workers. In the event negotiations fail, Sarkozy will almost certainly use the classic populist tactic of making them out to be a loud but small minority that makes life difficult for the "silent majority". The outcome of that struggle will determine what direction France, and its culture, will take during his presidency.