The French Choice

Friday, May 4, 2007

IT'S NOT OFTEN that U.S. policymakers have a clear favorite in a French presidential election. Usually even the most palatable candidate is someone like outgoing President Jacques Chirac, who defines his foreign policy agenda mostly by the ways it is opposed to that of the United States. One of the candidates in Sunday's election, Socialist Ségolène Royal, fits that mold: "I am not for a Europe than aligns with the U.S.," she bluntly declared in a television appearance last week. But Ms. Royal's opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, is different, at least in attitude. He is openly admiring of the United States; in a visit to Washington last year he impressed both the White House and leading Democrats with his interest in improving French-American relations.

If Washington is quietly rooting for Mr. Sarkozy, who has a slight lead in the polls, it is not alone. The 52-year-old Hungarian-born rightist would be a natural partner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the likely new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, both of whom want to strengthen economic and strategic ties between Europe and the United States. As important, Mr. Sarkozy would be far more likely to undertake the economic reforms that France desperately needs if it is to avoid falling further behind its principal partners in an era defined by globalization.

Because it has shunned steps that Britain, the Netherlands and even Germany have taken to make their economies more competitive, France's economic position has steadily declined. In a quarter century it has tumbled from seventh to 17th in global rankings of income per capita. Mr. Sarkozy understands the reasons: a bloated public sector, ever-rising government spending and a mandatory 35-hour work week that the candidate rightly calls a catastrophe. If Mr. Sarkozy has been cautious about talking about remedies -- he has promised to ease overtime restrictions and cut taxes -- Ms. Royal has made it clear she would worsen the sclerosis. She has promised tens of billions of dollars in new spending on social programs without explaining where the money would come from.

Mr. Sarkozy's greatest weakness is his poisonous relations with France's Muslims, including the millions of poor who are isolated in grim suburbs around Paris and other big cities. In another break from French political orthodoxy, Mr. Sarkozy has advocated affirmative action measures to help poor minority youths get educations and jobs. But his tough response to rioting in the slums -- he talked about cleaning up "scum" with a power hose -- has made him a hated figure for many young Muslims. Some fear he would be greeted by new unrest early in his term.

Finding ways to defuse the growing alienation of the Muslim minority may turn out to be the next president's biggest challenge. But it is more likely to be solved if France's economy can be turned around and its chronically high unemployment rate brought down. Mr. Sarkozy would have a far better chance of pulling that off than would Ms. Royal. If he turned out to be a better friend to the United States than previous French presidents, that would be a valuable bonus.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company