Sarkozy in Seclusion to Plan France's Next Government

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

PARIS, May 7 -- French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy showed a first sign Monday of his promised break with the past, emerging from a Paris hotel dressed in bluejeans and an open-collared white shirt, a casual sartorial style not associated with previous French presidents. Waving to well-wishers, he headed off to an undisclosed location to recuperate from the campaign and begin mapping out his new government.

Sarkozy won Sunday's vote by 53.1 percent to 46.9 percent by promising to transform a country gripped by self-doubt and economic decline. Now, with only nine days before he moves into the Elysee Palace, the French equivalent of the White House, he must begin efforts to close divisions over politics, ethnicity and how -- or if -- things should change.

Sarkozy planned to "retire to somewhere in France to unwind a little and to start organizing and preparing his teams," said François Fillon, one of his closest campaign associates and the likely next prime minister. The Reuters news agency reported late Monday that Sarkozy had arrived by private plane on the Mediterranean island of Malta, south of Sicily, and was staying on a yacht with his wife, son and campaign associates.

Upon taking office May 16, Sarkozy must quickly appoint a caretaker government to run the country while he and his Union for a Popular Movement party focus on consolidating his presidential victory with a strong showing in the June legislative elections.

His party holds 62 percent of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. While he seeks the strong majority that will be crucial for pursuing the ambitious agenda he has promised, it is unlikely he will risk tackling any tough issues that could spark social unrest or street protests.

"The question he will have to ask himself first is: What are the reforms he should implement to show politically that he sticks to what he announced?" said Dominique Reynié, a political analyst at the Institute for Political Sciences' Political Research Center. "And the second question is: What are the reforms he can implement without creating riots?"

Sarkozy, 52, a former interior minister, is distrusted by many immigrants and first-generation French because of his handling of suburban riots in 2005 and his restrictive positions on immigration. After his victory over Socialist Ségolène Royal was announced Sunday night, clashes between police and protest mobs broke out in Paris and nearly two dozen other towns and communities across France.

The appointment of ministers from other parties and diverse ethnic backgrounds would be a strong signal of Sarkozy's desire to unite the country, analysts said.

Among the contenders for top cabinet posts in Sarkozy's government are Employment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, 56, a popular politician with a reputation for reaching out to disadvantaged populations, and Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, 61. Sarkozy's campaign spokeswoman, Rachida Dati, a 44-year-old former judge and daughter of North African immigrants, is also mentioned as a cabinet contender.

Throughout his campaign, Sarkozy billed himself as results-oriented. Implicit in his comments was that he would not be like outgoing President Jacques Chirac, who for the most part never delivered on his promises of reform.

Analysts said Sarkozy likely will move quickly on his less controversial proposals, such as exempting overtime pay from taxes and "social charges," a fee employers pay for workers' benefits. The measure is designed to encourage people to work longer than the 35-hour week that is enshrined in French law.

He has promised about $20.4 billion in tax relief at the start of his term, with the aim of reducing taxes by about $92.5 billion over 10 years. He has promised to scale back the prerogatives of the president and give more powers to parliament. In his victory speech, he promised to make the fight against global warming the signature international initiative of his administration.

Tougher battles loom, particularly over reducing expensive public pensions in the transportation and energy sectors, making it easier for private companies to hire and fire employees, and scaling back the size of government -- he has proposed cutting 5 million of its jobs by replacing only one of every two workers who retire.

Sarkozy says steps like these would help revive the economy and make France more globally competitive. But in the past, opposition to them has brought hundreds of thousands of labor union and student protesters into the streets of Paris.

One tough proposal that Sarkozy may tackle early is a law to guarantee a minimum level of service on public transportation during strikes. That could take some of the sting out of unrest that could follow his other controversial proposals.

Although foreign affairs was usually mentioned as an afterthought on the campaign trail, Sarkozy said France will promote stronger ties with Africa, the home continent of most of France's immigrants. In an effort to reclaim his country's position as a European Union leader two years after voters here rejected the bloc's proposed constitution, Sarkozy declared, "France is back in Europe."

Derided by Socialists who dubbed him "an American neocon with a French passport," Sarkozy has also said he wants to nurture better relations between Washington and Paris.

"I think there will be a change in tone immediately, but beyond that, the relationship is working fine," said Nicole Bacharan, a political analyst at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

"He really believes in the alliance and friendship and the historic ties and common values. He is going to be a strong partner, and if he disagrees, he is going to say so clearly. It will be a relationship of tough love," Bacharan added.

Political analysts said that the Socialists, after their third presidential defeat in a row, had been given an emphatic and unmistakable message to reform the party. Many Socialist leaders and members continue to embrace anti-capitalist slogans and ideals that other socialist parties in Europe abandoned long ago.

Political analyst Reynié said it was not just a matter of economic issues, but the party's position on law enforcement and family and other social issues. "If the Socialists don't change their ideological views quickly, they won't be back in power for years," he said.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company