France's new president has been as hyperactive in office as he was on the campaign trail. But real reform has yet to comeby Tim King / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Persuasive, pragmatic, ambitious but not a deep thinker, Nicolas Sarkozy has long been one of the world’s most fascinating politicians. For years, the candidate promised his country more than mere change; he promised la rupture, and during his first blistering 100 days in power he has delivered it, after a fashion.
Right from the start he shattered the aloof, monarchic French presidential style. Unflattering front-page photographs of him in shorts jogging up the steps of the Elysée Palace disconcerted some. More acceptable, but equally unheard of, was his descent into the crowd with his wife on 14th July, to join the fête populaire. Where his predecessors rarely spoke in public, and only then with studied gravitas, Sarkozy chatters away to the press on every subject—on holiday in America, he called a press conference to tell us he was on holiday.
But the greatest rupture came with his choice of government: parity between the sexes and a senior minister of north African origins. Later he added three secretaries of state from ethnic minorities. More surprisingly, he brought in members of the Socialist opposition—one as foreign minister and five as secretaries of state. The idea of opening up government was not his but came from his centrist rival for president, François Bayrou. During the election campaign, Sarkozy ridiculed the idea: “What can it possibly lead to? Impotence. Democracy is a majority and an opposition.” But in office he changed his mind, for although giving jobs to the left provokes grumbling from his own party, it confuses the opposition. Also, by giving ministerial posts to politically isolated or inexperienced people, he concentrates more power for himself.
Breaking with tradition is one thing, but Sarkozy also promised to change France—rapidly. In four weeks, four new laws were on the statute book: reforming university budgets; decreasing tax; imposing minimum sentences on recidivists and creating a minimum public transport service during strikes. All were drafted and passed at great speed, with scant opposition. This produced a welcome exhilaration of forward movement, but it is not yet the kick up the pants some believe the country needs. The higher education reforms, for example, give university heads some autonomy over budgets, with the possibility of bonuses to attract better brains. They also slightly improve the conditions of students, but a proposal to select which students could take a master’s degree was thrown out as anti-republican by the…