On paper, Nicolas Sarkozy offers France its best hope for change. And that's what the French say they think they want. The elegant socialist Ségolène Royal, his rival for the presidency, would certainly be different: France's first woman head of state, who presents herself more as a listener than a leader.
So, what will it be—a fresh face, or real change? Only the hyperkinetic Sarkozy is the man with an understandable plan to take the nation out of its torpor and into the fiercely competitive 21st century. He would cut taxes, free up the labor market, encourage people to work longer and harder to make more money, increasing consumption to drive growth up and unemployment down. Royal dismisses all this as "arithmetic," arguing that her emphasis on education, research and the environment would create a better, more humane dynamic for growth. Maybe. But the Sarkozy approach has been proven to work in most of the industrialized world. It adds up. Royal's math has yet to be tested.
If this weekend's election were about plans, the result might be foreordained. But it's not. Sarko, as he's known, has a basic problem: the French, and the way they'll react to his confrontational personality, not to mention his likely painful policies. Over the past 12 years, successive governments have tried ramming through legislation to liberalize parts of the economy, and the public response has been a repeated, emphatic, massive marching-in-the-street, "Non!" If Sarkozy wins on May 6—the race is very close, but he's still the favorite—he may face the explosive paradox of a country that has elected him, but not accepted him.
Sarkozy won the first round of balloting, on April 22, with 31 percent against Royal's 26. Polls showed that most of his supporters embraced his program and thought he had "the stature of a president." (On this question, he ranked far ahead of Royal.) Yet the fact remains: two thirds of French voters did not vote for Sarkozy the first time around, and the drive to stop him in the runoff is now gathering a frantic momentum.
It's no surprise that defeated fringe candidates on the extreme left have thrown their nearly negligible weight against Sarkozy. And the evident bitterness of extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose voters abandoned him en masse for Sarkozy, was to be predicted. But the most stunning blow has come from the country's political center in the form of the moderately conservative third-place finisher François Bayrou, whose 18.5 percent of the vote is up for grabs and could well decide the election. At a press conference last week, the affable and easygoing Bayrou wouldn't say whom he will vote for—but he made it perfectly clear whom he's against. "Nicolas Sarkozy, through his proximity to business circles and media powers, through his taste for intimidation and threats, will concentrate power as it has never been before," Bayrou warned. "Through his temperament and the themes he has chosen to stir up he risks worsening the rips in the social fabric, notably through policies that give an advantage to the richest."
In the outer-city ghettos of France, which exploded in 2005 while Interior Minister Sarkozy was in charge of public order, the rhetoric aimed at him has turned vengeful and violent. His description of the toughs in low-income housing projects as "racaille," or scum from the bottom of the barrel, was at the time widely seen as an incitement to violence. "Sarkozy talks so hard and people are so fed up that one day somebody is going to sacrifice himself for the group and shoot him in the head," says a security guard who works in central Paris but lives in the outlying banlieues. He declined to give his name; he didn't say he was thinking of doing any such thing himself; and such talk may well be macho bluster, but it's not uncommon. France's hip-hop culture thrives on Sarkophobia. "The tragedy is that we burn the little we have/You just gotta vote to set the mofos on fire," raps a controversial group that calls itself Sniper.
When the irreverent political weekly Marianne ran a cover story earlier this month on "The True Sarkozy: What the big media don't dare or don't want to reveal," it sold out its first run of 300,000 copies, then reprinted (and sold) 60,000 more. The screed certainly was daring: a portrait of a fiercely self-centered and vindictive politician who terrifies not only his opponents but his friends, allies and the mainstream press. The editors duly noted Sarkozy's published remark, "I was an egotist, devoid of all humanity, inattentive to others, hard, brutal ... But I've changed!" Marianne begged to differ. "This man, in some way, is mad! And also fragile. And his is the kind of madness that has stoked a fair number of apprentice dictators in the past."
Critics—even Marianne—acknowledge Sarkozy's intelligence, energy and talent. Indeed, this "madman," as it were, could in fact be just what's needed to kick France toward new levels of prosperity. Unlike Royal, Sarkozy is a veteran of two top cabinet posts with heavy responsibilities: Interior and Finance. His record in both is of a man whose negotiating style is rough but pragmatic. He may beat the opposition to the ground, but he'll also offer a hand up.
In the 2002 elections, the dominant issue was public security. Gaullist President Jacques Chirac was re-elected, but only after a stunning challenge by extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen. When the new government was formed, Sarkozy got the Interior Ministry with a mandate to calm public fears, and so he did. "He showed that he understood, saying that the situation was serious, that a crackdown was legitimate," says Sebastian Roché, who heads the Security and Society Bureau at the National Center of Scientific Research in Grenoble. Sarkozy would not accept what Roché refers to as "the culture of excuses." He demanded accountability from the cops, but he also increased their funding and their manpower dramatically. One recent poll, taken after violence erupted in a central Paris train station last month, showed that 43 percent of the French consider Sarkozy the best person to protect them and their property. Royal's score: 15 percent.
If Sarkozy is elected, his first hundred days in power may look like "a circus hitched to a tornado," as someone once described the politics of American populist Huey Long in the 1930s. Most of the action will be on the economic front. As Sarkozy has presented his plan, the first move will be to reform the labor market, loosening up laws that actually prevent some French workers from averaging more than 35 hours a week. He'll try to simplify the Kafka-esque contracts that discourage hiring because they make firing so costly. Before the end of the year, Sarkozy wants to get the public unions to guarantee minimum services even if they go on strike. Taking on the bureaucracy, Sarkozy says that for every two civil servants who retire, he'll hire only one.
When President Chirac tried to execute similar grand plans during his first months in power 12 years ago, unions paralyzed the nation for weeks. Just last year, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin tried to push through a youth employment law giving companies more flexibility on first hires—sending hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. Elie Cohen, an economist at The Institute for Political Studies in Paris, thinks Sarkozy can do better. "He is all about the rapport de force. If he attacks, it will be because he is sure to win."
How? As minister of Economy and Finance in 2004, Sarkozy oversaw the partial privatization of the French national electricity company EDF. The unions were opposed, but he quietly negotiated with them, offering new benefits to compensate for perceived losses. "That offers a hint to his style," says Cohen. "Sarkozy is very shrewd. He will negotiate, use pressure, blackmail, offer new benefits."
As Finance Minister, Sarkozy also proved to be something less of an open-market man than some of his critics (and a few of his admirers) might suggest. A strong believer in "national champions," he intervened to facilitate the merger of the French pharmaceutical group Sanofi-Synthélabo with the French-German company Aventis, while squeezing out the Swiss firm Novartis. He also helped to bail out the giant French engineering firm Alstom, the maker of France's famous high-speed trains, and saved 26,000 French jobs in the process. Sarkozy "has a lot of energy and strong convictions, but he is very pragmatic," says Franz-Olivier Giesbert, author of a best-selling book on the Chirac years. "He will back down when it is productive, like if too many people go to the streets."
Those first 100 days will be "make or break," agrees Jean-Philippe Roy, a political science professor at the University of Tours. "If people end up having a little more money, a little more buying power quickly, then it can work. But if unemployment starts going up, we could have big social problems. This is all an enormous gamble."
But if you want to bet on real change for France, then Sarkozy looks like the one to back.
With Tracy McNicoll, Eric Pape and Florence Villeminot in Paris