Sarkozy’s victory is the product of a public-private dichotomy

ONE puzzling and often overlooked feature of the France that elected Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president, and that is now poised to give his political allies a powerful parliamentary mandate after tomorrow’s elections, is its mix of private optimism and public pessimism.

Consider this: France has the highest fertility rate in the EU (averaging at about 2.1 children per woman), even ahead of booming Ireland (1.9).

Yet, despite this, Eurobarometer polls repeatedly show that the French are the most pessimistic of all Europeans when it comes to their country’s future. How can people who are so negative about their common future as a nation go about confidently building their private futures within their families?

Indeed, strained by decades of governmental failure to curb massive unemployment, the French are nowadays often perceived as having retired from the political sphere to concentrate on their lives and leisure. Private associations, it seems, have picked up where political parties and trade unions have left off.

But if the French have turned their backs on the public sphere, why the record-high participation in the recent presidential election, when more than 85% turned out to vote? How do we explain the passion aroused by the campaign and by Sarkozy himself, including the massive affirmation of him in the parliamentary election?

Political fervour, it seems, has not vanished in the land of Rousseau and Danton. The French are not hopeless about politics; they are simply waiting for a genuine leader.

As a matter of fact, a case can be made that the French will never come to believe that the state lacks power, globalisation or no globalisation. The French still expect greater things from their government than from an integrated Europe or the world.

Yes, the French are incorrigible lovers of the welfare state (they are not the only ones). And Sarkozy seems to understand this instinctively. His agenda appears to aim at domestic liberalisation — moving beyond the 35-hour week, ending the special pension regimes accorded to particular professions, increasing incentives to work and gain wealth. But it also seeks protection from the dizzying effects of globalisation, which is likely mean strong support for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, skepticism toward further trade liberalisation and the will to improve EU’s economic government.

Nevertheless, precisely because they care about the future of their numerous children, the French are much more amenable to some wise reforms than most commentators (and politicians) generally assume. Secondary and higher education are rightly near the top of the agenda list of the new government. But so are measures aimed at harnessing the state to efforts to encourage entrepreneurship and boost economic dynamism such as public guarantees for housing and start-ups, and fiscal rebate for investment in small enterprises.

France is also in desperate need of a reality check on the nature of its current cultural diversity. Most French understand that their public spaces are corroded by discrimination. There is no greater task for Sarkozy than to open, from the inside, all doors to the offspring of others who, like his father, immigrated to France.

So make no mistake about it. Nicolas Sarkozy has not been elected to adapt France to an elusive globalisation. His mandate is much more demanding: he must reconcile France’s public interests with its private passions.

Jean-Paul Fitoussi is professor of economics at Sciences-po and president of Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques (OFCE) in Paris. Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.

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