Sarko’s Struggles

The French are famous for their long holidays – never more so than in August, the sleepiest month of the year. It’s a month when the tumbleweed all but blows down the Champs Elysees.
The cafes and shops that are still open here in August contain weary waiters and shop assistants, whose surly replies and unsmiling ‘bonne journees’ make clear they wish they were still ‘en vacances’ too.

Yet even on holiday, in the distinctly un-French destination of the USA, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia just couldn’t help making news. Taking a rare break from work, the hyper-active French president had hoped for a little peace and quiet as the family took to a New Hampshire lake on a speedboat.

Seeing they were being pursued by two photographers, the president leaped from his boat to remonstrate with them from the water in angry, rapid fire French. Unfortunately, the two bemused Americans didn’t understand a word. That weekend, reconciled to the media and their cameras, Mr Sarkozy was back in the limelight enjoying a casual picnic lunch ‘en famille’ with President George W. Bush.

This is a French president who loves America, and often cites its economy and its can-do attitude as an example for the rather more indolent French. Mr Sarkozy is not only determined to revamp the French at home, but also their standing abroad, starting with the Franco-American relationship, badly damaged by differences over the Iraq war.

The Kennebunkport picnic hit the headlines for rather less positive reasons, thanks to the conspicuous absence of Mr Sarkozy’s glamorous wife, Cecilia, who claimed that a sore throat prevented her attending the family gathering. Happily, her throat cleared up quickly enough for her to be spotted doing a spot of light shopping the very next day – leading the French press to speculate that her ‘mal de gorge’ was more of a ‘mal de George’.

The holiday  season has also  allowed French newspapers  to  speculate,  not over the crucial upcoming tax and pension reforms, but the state of the Sarkozys’ marriage, and what kind of a First Lady Madame Sarkozy is to be. Her mysterious absence during much of her husband’s election campaign contrasted sharply with her recent role as his personal envoy in Libya, helping obtain the release the imprisoned doctors and nurses.

Ever since, a debate has raged in France as to whether Madame Sarkozy is the new Jackie Kennedy or more of a reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. The Elysee Palace promises more ‘clarity’ over her role this September. Now that the holidays are over, it’s the ‘rentree’ or return to work for Monsieur Sarkozy and a government that has promised to put France and its legion of unemployed back to work – to make it a country that ‘gets up early’, and one in which hard work is rewarded. A country a little more like America, perhaps, but with much better food, and longer holidays, of course.

The far-reaching reforms promised by Mr Sarkozy are viewed with a mixture of interest and apprehension by the French, even though many agree that the country needs change as its economy stagnates. Left-wing commentators have already criticised Mr Sarkozy as the president of ‘bling and spin’, wondering if he really will fulfil his campaign promises to free up the labour market and create new jobs in France – and whether the trade unions will let him.

This September should offer some answers. Mr Sarkozy’s honeymoon period in the polls at home gives him a good chance of continuing the economic reforms he has begun. Yet even as he returned from his two-week break, Nicolas Sarkozy faced his first minor setback since assuming the presidency in May.

Having  pushed  through  many of his labour and tax reforms in a special parliamentary session in July, one of his key plans was struck down by the French Constitutional Council, which deemed unconstitutional part of his tax package aimed at encouraging more widespread home-ownership by offering home-owners a tax break on mortgage-interest payments.

So will his other reforms face similar difficulties? And will the trade unions sit by and watch as the Socialists’ main legacy, the 35 hour week, is chipped away? Perhaps most controversially, one of the first projects on Mr Sarkozy’s agenda is a new law that trade unions say will limit their legal right to strike, by enforcing a minimum service on public transport during industrial action.

Other flashpoints include the reform of unemployment benefits, which will be made dependent on active job hunting, in changes modelled on Britain’s system and aimed at tackling stubbornly high unemployment of eight percent, far higher among the young, immigrants and the over-50s. France’s trade unions are threatening to gear up for what could be a ‘hot autumn’ if the reforms go too far, too fast – though Mr Sarkozy knows that he must act quickly if he’s to capitalise on his current popularity among the voters in his first year in office.

In a Paris café this week, I sat with French friends as they returned from their holidays and discussed the prospects for the autumn. So do they believe Sarko will succeed in his grand project of shaking France out of its past decade of torpor and its fear of change?

As they stared into their café cremes, glumly contemplating American-style holidays  of  just t wo weeks  a year,  the  answer was a broad Gallic shrug, and an ambivalent reply: “If anyone can reform France, he can. And if he can’t, who knows? Maybe the rest of the world will just have to come round to our way of thinking.”