As Nicolas Sarkozy took in the political landscape on Bastille Day, he could be forgiven for his giddiness. The new president's approval ratings were in the stratosphere—nearing 70 percent in some polls—thanks in no small part to the new-look government he'd put together, one with an ethnic, racial and gender makeup far more reflective of modern France than any before (consider Rachida Dati, a daughter of North African immigrants, whom he appointed as minister of Justice). Less visible but particularly potent is Sarkozy's political diversity campaign, dubbed ouverture (or openness), that has seen him lure a growing array of prominent Socialists, centrists and other leftist activists to work in or for his conservative government. Admiring the varied team that he assembled at the Elysée Palace on July 14, the president gushed, "I am blown away by so many beautiful symbols."
The ones really blown away, however, have been the Socialist opposition, which is reeling. Sarkozy cannily managed to thin the left's uppermost ranks. First, he named a half dozen active or former Socialists to his government—including one of the most popular, Bernard Kouchner, as minister of Foreign Affairs. He then persuaded Hubert Védrine, who was the last Socialist to oversee foreign policy, and Jacques Attali, who was a top aide to President François Mitterrand, to draft reports on globalization and development-assistance reform. Dominique Strauss-Kahn—the left's economic heavyweight—is now the odds-on favorite to become the next head of the International Monetary Fund, in large part thanks to Sarkozy (making Strauss-Kahn conveniently unlikely to steady the reins at Socialist headquarters). And on June 18, former minister of Culture Jack Lang, who once called Sarkozy a "Bush for France," joined the president's special advisory commission on institutional and constitutional reform. Parliamentarian Alain Vidalies, who is a member of the Socialist national council that Lang recently resigned from, told NEWSWEEK that it is all part of Sarkozy's "cynical and purely tactical political operation."
He's largely right—and the plan is working brilliantly. Ouverture has let Sarkozy brand himself as meritocratic and politically open-minded, yet he has made no public promises that these hires would change the government's vision in any way. Instead, the president has grabbed Socialists, centrists or others whose positions largely echo his own (Sarkozy has deftly reserved ministries that are overseeing his most controversial reforms—Immigration, Justice, Finance, Health and Labor—for faithful allies). "Ouverture isn't a political coalition," clarifies Yves Jégo, a conservative parliamentarian close to Sarkozy. "The road map hasn't changed. Those people have boarded the train, but it's still going to the same place."
Still, reforms in France will require plenty of political capital and popular support to succeed. As the right knows from experience, public unrest can scotch the best-laid plans—even absent a vibrant Socialist opposition. Despite Sarkozy's popularity, 51 percent of the French say they might join a strike of their professional sector if they feel the reforms are misguided.
That's where ouverture comes in. "It sends a message to the country that President Sarkozy is acting in the name of all of the French people," says Stéphane Rozès, a political economist who directs the CSA polling institute. "To reform deeply, he must reach wide." And he might be able to. After some initial grumbling from his own political camp, 83 percent of the right now views Sarkozy's presidency favorably, according to a recent BVA poll. Better yet for the president, Socialist infighting has left the opposition off-message on some of its most favorable issues, like the recently passed multibillion-euro tax cut aimed largely at the rich. So is France finally set for transformational reform? Signs are mixed. Sarkozy may be popular, but his summer of reform is going more slowly than expected. The first major measure, on university education, saw two of its three main components (university selection and tuition increases) eliminated in recent weeks, leaving only a much-needed but hardly revolutionary proposal allowing for more university autonomy still in place. What happened? Familiar fears that students might join angry workers in the streets this fall gave legislators cold feet. "The first decisions raise questions about whether he will engage in deep reforms," explains Dominique Reynié, political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. "I see classic decisions so far."
Indeed, Sarkozy sounded like many French leaders before him as he added €15 billion in new budget spending and told Brussels that France should be given an extra two years to rein in its debt burden because this time the money would spur more economic growth (the EU was unmoved and insisted that Paris keep its fiscal promises). Sarkozy sounded equally unconvincing when he pressured the European Central Bank to weaken the euro to spur exports. And in Toulouse last week, alongside his German counterpart Angela Merkel, he lamented "monetary dumping" of major currencies like the Chinese yuan, the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen, which he says are undervalued.
Such rhetoric is raising concern that Sarkozy's politically astute "political opening" might be a prelude to consensual politics as usual in France, under which presidents rally their divided people together against convenient outside forces—China, the ECB, the United States, globalization—but engage in only light reforms at home, not the profound structural transformations that international economists have encouraged for decades.
Assuming the reforms do come, so will protests. The spark could well be the elimination of 10,000 or more civil-servant jobs, asking citizens to pay for a larger portion of their medical visits, an increased retirement age or a host of other proposed measures. These changes, not his new appointments, will be the real test of Sarko's mettle and substance. Given that, he would be wise to push fast and hard for change this summer, as he promised after his election. By the time the leaves begin to turn in the garden of the Elysée Palace, Sarkozy's "symbols" may look a lot less beautiful.