Sarkozy is No Chirac

John Zvesper

May 1, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy has beaten Ségolène Royal in the contest for the French presidency, so he will replace Jacques Chirac in that office at midnight on May 16th. In his short victory speech soon after polls closed on the evening of May 6th, Sarkozy spoke movingly about his love for France as a dear, grand, old and beautiful nation. He made the traditional generous (and perfectly proper) statements of victorious candidates about being president of all French citizens, including those who did not vote for him. Some of those who did not vote for him admitted that he spoke well.

In other, more cynical ways, too, it might seem that the French have been here before. Sarkozy’s margin of victory (53% to Royal’s 47%) was almost identical to that of Chirac (over Lionel Jospin) in 1995. Pessimistic observers have been warning us for some months now that a Sarkozy victory will probably just mean a repeat performance of the Chirac years, when efforts to enact modernizing economic reforms were often frustrated by strikes and public protests. The usual opponents of such reforms have not been shy about issuing threats that similar efforts under Sarkozy’s presidency will meet the same fate.

But there are important differences between Sarkozy’s and Chirac’s electoral victories. In the first place, turnout has been higher: less than 80% in both 1995 and 2002, versus more than 85% this year. Moreover, Sarkozy’s impressive 31% in the first round (an open primary, in which all but the two highest-scoring candidates are eliminated) was much higher than Chirac’s 21% in 1995 (and 20% in 2002). Related to these numbers is the even more important fact that Sarkozy, running for president for the first time, has been very clear about his intention to appoint a government that will enact conservative economic and social legislation. In contrast, when Chirac first won the presidency in 1995—after two unsuccessful runs in 1981 and 1988—he got into the second round of the presidential election by having positioned himself more towards the center in the first round, thus edging ahead of a rival candidate from his own party (Edouard Balladur, who was supported by Nicolas Sarkozy).

In the televised presidential debate in 1995, the most memorable line was when Jospin, who favored the proposal to reduce presidential terms to five years, said to viewers “the choice is five years of Jospin or seven years of Chirac, which will be very long.” In this year’s more substantive debate, policy differences between Sarkozy and Royal were very clear. In trying to boost economic growth, for Royal the best way is to make the “social partners” (employers and unions) talk to and reach agreements with each other; for Sarkozy, the priority is rather to promote greater rewards for work.

Another notable fact about Sarkozy’s victory that distinguishes him from Chirac is that since 1981 this is the first election (whether presidential or separate legislative) in which French voters have not registered a protest against the party in power by electing the opposing party to office. The left and some of the center will try to make this a brief exception, by winning power in the legislative elections next month (June 10th and 17th). But the left is demoralized and divided, and many of its leaders acknowledge that it has not yet sufficiently modernized its outlook. Polls currently show Sarkozy’s party is well placed to win these legislative elections. Sarkozy’s first challenge is to help ensure that they do.

Sarkozy’s promise to be president of all the French is not inconsistent with pursuing his electoral mandate. In his victory speech he underlined the fact that in electing him the French have finally chosen change, and a break with some bad habits and ideas. We shall see.

John Zvesper, an American living in Europe, is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a Fellow of the Claremont Institute.