terça-feira, maio 08, 2007


New Europe

May 8, 2007; Page A18

PARIS -- For over a quarter of a century, two men dominated France's political life: François Mitterrand, who lost two elections before becoming president in 1981, and Jacques Chirac, who replaced him in 1995 after serving twice as prime minister. Now the French have a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the plain-spoken son of a Hungarian immigrant, who convincingly defeated an unmarried woman with four children, Ségolène Royal on Sunday. No wonder voters came out en masse, as if the two lead candidates had liberated them from boredom. But with the choice made, voters remain apprehensive of their new president no less than of their own condition at home and in the world.

Yet the atmosphere of renewal that accompanied Mr. Sarkozy's triumph, and reinforced by Ms. Royal's honorable showing, will soon be tested. The millions who voted for "anyone except Sarkozy" will not be easily seduced.

First, there is the matter of France herself. As was the case with Mr. Chirac's first and last prime ministers, Alain Juppé in the fall of 1995 and Dominique de Villepin last year, Mr. Sarkozy's commitment to reform will face considerable opposition. Indeed, unrest in the streets of Paris this fall is all but certain. Paradoxically, France is a centrist republic that hungers for extreme solutions to its societal problems of identity, prosperity and security.

Enter what might be called the Thatcher factor. Mr. Sarkozy is expected to act forcefully. For that he will need a mandate, so success in next month's legislative elections will be vital to his presidency. With the left in disarray and the center hurt by François Bayrou's muted endorsement of Ms. Royal, such a majority is within reach.

Second, with regard to Europe, his will to act suits German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Mr. Sarkozy will work closely to address an urgent institutional agenda that has been stalled since the death of the EU constitutional treaty two years ago. Mr. Sarkozy hopes for a "mini treaty" that can relaunch the EU without any "constitutional" claim or a need for another referendum. Next month's EU summit offers an opportunity to test the new Franco-German duo before the arrival of Gordon Brown, Britain's premier-in-waiting.

A shrewd politician, Mr. Sarkozy is fully aware that the French have become increasingly euro-skeptical. Prosperity is the key here. Recent opinion polls show that only 22% of Frenchmen think they "live better" thanks to the EU, while 43% disagree. Much of that skepticism has to do with enlargement, and Mr. Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's membership is especially firm. On the whole, however, France's EU partners will find Mr. Sarkozy easier to work with than most of his predecessors, as he will not make every issue a theological test of vision.

Finally, there is France's troubled relationship with the U.S. -- or "our American friends," as Mr. Sarkozy said in his victory speech. The passion that Mr. Sarkozy feels for both America and Americans is real. It clearly surpasses his compatriots' ambivalence about either. That could also have been said of Mr. Chirac in 1995, if not of Mitterrand in 1981. Thus, Mr. Sarkozy's passion for what America is should not be mistaken for a blanket endorsement of what America does -- he has praised Mr. Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war. Still, over such issues as the spread of nuclear weapons and the clash with Iran, France and the U.S. are often closer to each other than they are respectively to Germany and Britain. Mr. Sarkozy may also be more of a team player in the trans-Atlantic alliance -- including on issues such as NATO enlargement and relations with Iran, Russia and China.

The French presidential election is one in a series of elections over the past few years that add up to a complete political turnover in four key EU countries. There was also such a changing of the guard in 1979-83, when elections produced a revolution of sorts in each country: from left to right in Britain (Margaret Thatcher in 1979) and Germany (Helmut Kohl in 1983), and from right to left in France (Mitterrand in 1981) and Spain (Felipe González in 1982). These changes eased a renewal of the Atlantic alliance inspired by Ms. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, himself elected in 1980, and of the European Community, with Mitterrand and Mr. Kohl at the helm. These forceful leaders were all individuals of conviction who did not embrace everyone else's ideas but who respected each other. Together, they won the Cold War with a cohesive alliance and a dynamic European Union.

Today, France appears ready to "reunderstand" its inability to go it alone at home within Europe and in the world. The new French president comes into office eager to make France right, so to speak, and to settle the societal problems that obstruct the making of a renewed France in a new Europe. Among the just-elected or coming new leaders in Europe, Mr. Sarkozy appears especially well prepared to attend to this agenda of transition and urgency -- transition for the country he will now be leading, and for the union and the alliance his predecessors helped fashion during the Cold War, and urgency because, after a 26-year presidential pas de deux, there is much to do on all these accounts.

(in The Wall Street Journal,8may 2007)

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