France's Get-Up-and-Go

EDUCATION: Sarkozy meets with students at a bistro to win their support for reform of the nation's under-funded university system.
EDUCATION: Sarkozy meets with students at a bistro to win their support for reform of the nation's under-funded university system. (By Benoit Tessier -- Associated Press)

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By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

PARIS

It's hard to say what is more remarkable -- that the French National Assembly was in session in mid-July at 1:30 on a Tuesday morning or that it approved an $18 billion tax cut plan that drastically reduces taxes on the rich and offers incentives for working more.

After decades of economic drift and political paralysis, France suddenly finds itself caught up in a whirlwind of economic reform, all of it generated by its hyperactive new president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

There he is lunching with student leaders at a local bistro to win their support for reform of the nation's under-funded and under-performing university system.

Here he is on the phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, sealing the deal for the French oil company, Total, for a 25 percent stake in the management of the giant Shtokman gas field.

Now he is in Toulouse, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, announcing a new governance structure for Airbus that puts a loyal French technocrat in charge.

And there's Sarko in Brussels, criticizing the European Central Bank for keeping the euro too high and demanding more leeway for France's ballooning budget deficit.

The joke going around is that while Sarkozy's arch-rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, wrote a book on Napoleon, Sarkozy is Napoleon, reshaping the French economy according to his will and restoring it to its former glory.

Despite some similarities, Sarkozy isn't exactly France's answer to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, there are the big tax cuts designed to "shock" the French economy into a higher growth mode by putting more money in the pockets of French consumers, encouraging investment and luring capital and talent back into the country.

He's given labor and management six months to come up with a new employment contract that will give companies more flexibility to hire and fire.

To tame the power of labor unions, Sarkozy has demanded that transit workers be required to provide a minimal level of service during strikes.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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