Sarkozy's Dangerous Strengths

By Jim Hoagland
Monday, May 7, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy relied on vast stores of ambition, willpower and intelligence to win France's presidency yesterday. But as have many successful politicians, Sarkozy built his victory on strengths that could become crippling weaknesses in office if he cannot temper them.

This is to take nothing away from the triumph that this election represents for Sarkozy -- a refreshingly unlikely president of the French -- and for France itself. Voters turned out massively in yesterday's runoff to reject the vision of passivity, self-doubt and negativism that has infected French policy and thinking in recent years and to endorse Sarkozy's call for action and accountability.

The results also deliver stinging setbacks to the extremists on both the right and left who seemed to threaten the functioning of French democracy in the last presidential election, five years ago. For the short term at least, France is back -- with all the mixed blessings that brings.

But Sarkozy's projected six-point margin of victory does not establish conclusively that the French will follow him rather than fight him as he seeks far-reaching labor and tax reforms. He must now establish that outcome on his own by winning a parliamentary majority for his neo-Gaullist party in elections next month and by working to overcome the bitterness and fear this campaign produced.

His victory benefited greatly from the mistakes of Ségolène Royal, his Socialist opponent. An initially favorable electorate came to see her as incompetent and a shrew. In their televised debate Wednesday, Sarkozy brilliantly adapted Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy by laying back and conserving his composure while Royal flailed wildly at him.

She may now lose the leadership of the Socialist Party, which failed to use this campaign to address the structural changes that immigration, globalization, a quarter-century of budget deficits and relatively low economic growth have produced in French society.

By relying on the novelty of a female nominee as their chief campaign issue, the Socialists "lost a valuable opportunity to do what we did, to modernize our party and our programs and express them in meaningful terms to the electorate," François Fillon told me in Paris in the closing stage of the highly effective campaign that he designed and managed for Sarkozy.

Fillon is expected to be named prime minister when President Jacques Chirac turns power over to Sarkozy around May 16. In his 12 years in office, Chirac alternately nurtured and slapped down Fillon, Sarkozy and other younger reformers after they pushed him to change more rapidly than he wanted.

"We owe a lot of the chance we have had to transform the party and its platform to Chirac," Fillon said. "He isolated us, he excluded us and in so doing he gave us the liberty to criticize what his government was not doing. He fired me from the cabinet two years ago because I was unpopular" for reforming the national pension system, Fillon added.

Do not expect Sarkozy to be as immediately active in dismantling Chirac's foreign policy, which sought to establish Europe as a counterweight to American influence abroad. Sarkozy is impressed far more by what the United States does at home than by its global aims and presence. He would like France to emulate America's domestic dynamism, not the Bush administration's ambitious reach abroad.

"His basic experience with security is as an interior minister fighting crime and violence at home, and that is how he is likely to define his actions," says a French general who admits to not having high hopes for new defense spending or initiatives.

Adds Fillon: "Americans should welcome a Sarkozy victory because it will bring a France that will develop a healthy economy and work for a stronger Europe that will be a reliable partner for the United States." But Sarkozy's open sympathy for Israel will bring some change in the French approach to the Middle East.

Youthful and energetic at 52 and short in physical stature, Sarkozy -- the son of a Hungarian immigrant -- originally struck many in France as an unlikely president. But the force of his personality comes through in even casual encounters, and he can be an electrifying speaker on the stump. He considers one of the greatest accomplishments of the campaign his willingness to address politically incorrect topics such as endemic crime and violence in immigrant-inhabited ghettos.

Voters responded positively to Sarkozy's demonstrated lack of self-doubt, his ability to stay relentlessly on a message that he has honed and his blunt, straight-talking manner. Recent U.S. history suggests that those campaign strengths do not guarantee success in governing, however.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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