France à la Sarkozy

Eight months into his presidency, is Nicolas Sarkozy delivering the “rupture” from 30 years of French immobility that he promised? Dubbed the “hyper-president” by bewildered media, he has launched a vast number of reforms, many of which were once considered political suicide. He has targeted many areas – including universities, the judiciary, foreign policy, immigration, taxation, and the environment – but it is the economy that will prove to be the make-or-break issue.

Sarkozy’s slogan “work more to earn more” has won him considerable support. The crucial test will be his ability to reform the labor market, whose rigidities are widely seen as the main cause of France’s relatively poor economic performance, with an unemployment rate that has never dipped below 8% over the last 25 years.

While the government has begun many projects, with few exceptions, including tax breaks for the wealthy, most are still in the making. The most important concern public employment, pensions, labor legislation, and the length of the workweek, all of which generate fierce resistance.

The main reason for the slow pace – noting that previous presidents had no pace at all – is a 2005 law that requires that all measures affecting the labor market first be negotiated in good faith with the trade unions. Naturally, the unions impede negotiations as much as possible.