France's Election: Another Political Thatcher Is Born

PARIS - Nicolas Sarkozy's triumph in the French presidential elections could open the way for deep political and social changes, not unlike those that began with the era of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the 1980s.At the same time, Sarkozy's triumph, or rather, the defeat of the Left in the shape of Socialist candidate SAf(c)golAfA"ne Royal, can also bring an overhaul of political structures, according to some political analysts.

Sarkozy obtained 53 percent of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections, thanks to the decisive support of centrists and far right-wing voters, and even some leftist supporters, according to political surveys.

Sarkozy, who will take office May 16, declared immediately that during his mandate "values such as hard work, morality, authority, respect and merit will be rehabilitated."

Such wording, which he has used repeatedly during his campaign, has been widely interpreted as announcement of further dismantling of the welfare state, preference for neo-liberal politics in favor of enterprises, and state authoritarianism.

"I want to restore French national identity," Sarkozy said. "I want the French to be proud again of their nation."

Sarkozy had promised during his campaign to create a ministry for national identity and immigration, suggesting that both are linked. He has also defended a selective immigration policy under which immigrants would be chosen on the basis of their education, and their professional, cultural and even sports capabilities.

In foreign relations, Sarkozy said "the United States can trust French friendship." He later described the U.S.-led war against Iraq "a historical mistake" but said that "friendship means that friends may have different opinions."

Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac used the veto in 2003 to block a UN National Security Council resolution that sought to give legitimacy to the invasion of Iraq.

Sarkozy also called upon the European Union to "listen to the wrath of the people, who perceive the EU not as a protection, but as a Trojan horse" for all threats represented by globalisation. He announced that he would find a method of passing the failed European Constitution without a referendum. In 2005, French citizens rejected the European constitution in a referendum, effectively killing it.

Sarkozy opposed integration of Turkey into the EU. On the other hand, he supported the inclusion of new Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, and even the Caucasus republic of Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Sarkozy, whose mother was of Jewish origin, said that in the Middle East "Israeli security" would be central to his presidency.

Sarkozy is the first French president unaffected by the political turmoil of the 20th century. He was born in January 1955, and was still a child when French colonialism came to an end.

By the same token, he does not have the political, diplomatic and friendship links with the Arab world that characterized most of his predecessors.

On the domestic front, Sarkozy announced that he would propose elimination of inheritance taxes, and reduction of taxes for enterprises.

But these policies will depend on the outcome of the legislative elections due Jun. 10 and 17. The French president has enormous powers in foreign policy, but implementation of domestic policies is a task of the government formed after parliamentary elections.

Sarkozy's advisers have said he would create a provisional government May 16, in which he would include political personalities "from the center and the left" to run the country for a month.

On three occasions in the past, French voters have chosen a government ideologically opposed to the president, forcing what has been dubbed cohabitation. But it is unlikely that the next government will be a leftist one.

The Socialist party (PS) seems to have stretched itself to the full in the presidential campaign.

SAf(c)golAfA"ne Royal, the Socialist candidate, obtained 47 percent of the vote, but the result suggests that there is little more by way of a leftist constituency. In the first round of elections Apr. 22, Royal obtained 25 percent of the vote, and other leftist parties including the Greens and the Communists together won less than 10 percent.

"The Socialist Party really exhausted its potential of votes in the first electoral round," GAf(c)rard Grunberg, a political scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research told IPS. "To the left of the PS, there is only a very meager percentage of votes."

According to Grunberg, for the Socialist Party "the challenge is in winning votes from the center of the political spectrum" where a reservoir of moderate voters, afraid of Sarkozy's right-wing radicalism, could be searching for a new political home.

This appears to be the hope also of some Socialist leaders. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former minister for finance and economy said the PS has to move towards the center of the political spectrum, towards social democracy.

"I am ready to lead the social democratic renovation of the party," Strauss-Kahn said after the electoral result was announced May 6.

"The French Left has never been so weak as today," Strauss-Kahn said. "The main reason is that the French Left has failed to go through a revision of its ideas."

Some even believe that the French Socialists should call for an extraordinary congress to discuss a new liberal program, similar to that of the German Social Democratic Party in Bad Godesberg in 1959, during which the party abandoned Marxism.

But the PS is a bourgeois organization, with no relation to Marxism whatsoever. It has failed to find an answer to the challenges of a society marked by racist resentment against immigrants, divisions among regions, and deep skepticism directed at Paris politicians and intellectuals.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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