The Thatcher-Blair move to the right has finally hit France. In a campaign that played on fears of crime and immigration and vowed to trim social spending, Nicolas Sarkozy, with 53 percent of the vote, handily won the runoff presidential election against Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. Sarko took two-thirds of neo-Fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s votes from the first round and, crucially, more of center-right candidate François Bayrou’s than did Ségo. Sarko has already been making deals with the latter’s MPs, assuring himself a victory in next month’s important parliamentary elections. Clearly, enough voters bought his conservative vision of a people who would look out for themselves rather than depend on a protectionist state. As in much of Europe, a part of the left’s vision has been left behind. Sarko could afford to sound presidential in his victory speech, assuring the French that he would defend all their interests and that no citizen would be left behind. But the country he will rule is far from unified.
As in Caesar’s time, all Gaul is divided into three parts. A third of the voters have been firmly for the Socialists, wanting to maintain France’s comprehensive welfare state and overall high standard of living. Another third is persuaded that Sarko is right in wanting to introduce neoliberal economic reforms. On the eve of the May 2 presidential debate, 19 percent were still undecided. These centrists agreed with Ségo on preserving the social safety net but were with Sarko on crime and immigration.
Ségo took a big gamble in their face-to-face confrontation, wanting to show that a woman could be tough and “presidential,” clearly hoping to provoke Sarko’s notoriously bad temper. She attacked him partly from the right, pointing to the recent rape of two policewomen, saying they should all be escorted home after work, a suggestion that Sarko (and presumably many others) scoffed at as being impracticable. Rather than seeming firm, to many she came across as a scolding schoolmarm, literally, telling Sarko to “do your homework,” though her own figures proved to be more inaccurate than his. The results the next day were devastating: The 66 percent of those who’d found her sympa (likable) before the debate fell to 53 percent, while the unlikable Sarkozy went up four points.
Neither candidate proved fully persuasive. Ségo defended the thirty-five-hour week, the great Socialist achievement, claiming it had added a million new shared jobs (most economists say a more accurate count is a third of that). Sarko didn’t dare attack the thirty-five-hour week directly, but he wants to encourage more overtime by cutting taxes on overtime pay. French employers have been reluctant to use their existing allocations of overtime, though, since they can find cheaper labor elsewhere. Auto workers in Slovakia, for example, make a quarter of French wages; now more cars are produced there per capita than anywhere else in Europe.
Sarko argued for tax cuts and debt reduction, the old Reagan refrain. Such cuts would affect all social programs and undermine French standards of economic equality, which are extraordinary, at least compared with Britain and the United States, the two rich countries where the well-being of children is the worst, according to UNICEF. Sarko, who has been caricatured in the French media in a Margaret Thatcher wig, proposes tax cuts that would go much further than hers, and certainly much further than outgoing President Jacques Chirac’s recent cuts, which were steeply regressive.
Other than a few protectionist asides by Sarko, neither candidate had much to say about the very real threats France faces from globalization. Nor did either have any persuasive ideas about the massive, now multigenerational, unemployment among France’s immigrants. Ségo’s famous suggestion of military training for delinquents, an incredibly expensive idea, seemed more attuned to persuading hesitant centrist voters than to solving the problem. At least she offered helpful suggestions on education, stressing the need for smaller classes in poorer school districts and more spending on education in general.