By Freedom Newspapers
Some of the problems Nicolas Sarkozy will face as he tries to implement a bold program of reform as president of France were symbolized almost immediately.
Opponents of Sarkozy almost immediately took to the streets in Paris, Toulouse, Marseilles, Lyon and elsewhere, torching 730 vehicles and injuring 28 police officers. Almost 600 people were arrested.
It’s not difficult to remember that this is a country where young people held demonstrations as if the world were about to fall apart when politicians started talking about making it possible for employers to fire new employees within the first two years of hiring.
French laws make it almost impossible to fire an unsatisfactory employee, which means employers are reluctant to hire new employees, which means unemployment is high and the economy is in the doldrums.
Labor mobility, innovation and investment have suffered. Yet the very policies that deter economic growth and the restoration of France as a real leader in the world at large are fiercely defended and in some cases viewed as near-sacred entitlements.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who as interior minister shocked the keepers of political correctness when he called some of those who rioted in mostly immigrant Muslim suburbs “scum” in 2005, seemed to understand the French malaise.
He talked about restoring respect for work and entrepreneurial endeavors. He talked about loosening restrictive labor laws.
As the son of a Hungarian immigrant, he said all these things as an outsider to France’s often-cozy political elite — yet he spoke eloquently of restoring France to glory, of making the French proud to be French again.
Segolene Royal, running as a socialist, campaigned on milder reform ideas and advanced promises of a big increase in minimum wage and more government intervention in the economy.
The French people seemed to understand this was a watershed election, and 85 percent of eligible voters cast votes on Sunday.
Nicholas Dungan, president of the New York City-based French-American Foundation, who has spent the last four or five weeks in France monitoring the campaign, said most people in France saw this as a campaign of ideas.
Both candidates were born after World War II, both saw a need for change, but offered different visions.
Sarkozy offered a more entrepreneurial and realistic vision, and praised the United States. Royal had a more post-modernist view of the world, maintaining that only minor changes in the extensive French welfare state would be necessary.
Dungan said the protests Sunday night were the equivalent of letting off steam, and didn’t affect French life significantly. “The French had a real sense of making an historic choice,” he said, “and they chose a more classic, traditionalist way to restore France’s position of leadership in the world.”
The institutional barriers to reform will be formidable. But the voters, in choosing the more radical of the reform-minded candidates, may give Sarkozy the lift he will need.