Can the winner of France’s presidential election overcome the voters’ deep-seated resistance to change? Put another way, can the French be persuaded to back any politician who says that restoring the value of work is his “priority of priorities” and publicly declares the country’s creaking social model to be bankrupt? Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right candidate whom polls now show to be slightly ahead of his calculatedly people-friendly Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, appears intent on putting that proposition to the test. He must tread with care. Avidly though the French devour books lamenting their national decline, they are fierce in defence of the welfare cushions that make that still relative decline seemingly comfortable. They may discuss the need for radical rethinking, but they have not so far shown much enthusiasm for reform. Mr Sarkozy’s campaign is, as he admits, an honourable gamble.
He is gambling that the French are more “clear-sighted” about facing up to global competition, and that they do not continue to regard the State as an endlessly benevolent uncle. The challenge for politics, he asserts, is to bridge the gap between the “open, active and modern” outlook of France’s young people and its international businesses, and the inertia of the public sector that employs one person in four and absorbs 54 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
Ms Royal has also made “change” her mantra but, if her platform bears any relationship to her Désirs d’Avenir website, it will extend the social role of the State in the name of a greater effort of solidarité. M Sarkozy has interventionist leanings; he could not survive in France if he did not. But he is a genuine radical, even if he has to temper his message in the course of the campaign. So far as can be discerned — and she has so far kept to generalities — there is very little new in the future according to Ms Royal. This has been described as a campaign of personalities, and there the smiling but superficial Ms Royal may have the edge on the acerbic though eloquent Mr Sarkozy. We do not have a vote in France’s elections, but we have cast our lot with him.
Not the greatest shock in le monde, but things are heatin’ up!