Pedal to the Metal

Pedal to the Metal

The celebrated rentrée makes September the liveliest month in France, with bustling purposefulness and determination that’s almost palpable. Maybe rentrée should be used in the plural, because there’s the rentrée scolaire as kids go back to school, the rentrée judiciaire as lawyers and judges get back to their cases, and of course the rentrée politique. And in that domain there is purpose aplenty this fall as Nicolas Sarkozy pursues his ambitious program of reforms. And in doing so, he’s getting himself back on the front pages for something other than a midlife crisis.

As the president headed off on vacation (discreetly, at a very private, very plush villa belonging to his new in-laws at Le Lavandou on the Mediterranean coast) it was with a considerable sense of accomplishment.

A special joint session of Parliament, convoked at Versailles as the Constitution requires, gave Sarkozy a precious victory by voting for the changes he wanted in the Constitution. The revisions strengthen the separation of powers-Parliament gets more control over its agenda and over certain appointments that were previously the purview of the president alone. Parliament is also assured of having information about military operations that it was previously denied. The president will now be permitted to address a joint session of Parliament, but not be present for any debates that follow. And Presidents are limited to two five-year terms.

If that all sounds like more of a victory for Parliament than for the president, that’s not how it played. Both foes of the man and of his maneuver attacked the changes as weakening the prime minister (a major concern in any period of “cohabitation,” if the opposition party had control of the Assembly) and as shoring up Sarkozy’s “monocracy.” Mostly they attacked the changes as changes.

The amendments were resisted, inevitably, by the Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin loyalists in Sarkozy’s own party, the UMP; and opposed with currently uncharacteristic discipline by the Socialists. Jack Lang was the only Socialist who voted in favor. A distinguished “elephant,” as the Socialist old guard is known, Lang’s yes vote gave Sarkozy one more vote than the required three-fifths of all 576 assemblymen and 330 senators.

Lang had been a member of the commission that recommended the amendments, so his support might be seen as consistent with the kind of logic that Frenchmen normally pride themselves on. But the scolding he got for “betraying” his party was loud and long, to which he replied that he needed no lessons on how to be a Socialist.

Lang’s hectoring led Bernard Kouchner, another Socialist headliner who now serves as Sarkozy’s foreign minister, to declare that one of the French institutions that most needed reforming was the Socialist Party.

The constitutional amendments serve to modernize the Fifth Republic’s half-century-old basic law, but significantly they also impose a new imprint, Sarkozy’s own, right up there alongside Charles de Gaulle’s. It was De Gaulle who fathered the document and with it the Fifth Republic.

Sarkozy’s constitutional success followed a flurry of legislative reforms enacted over the springtime and early summer. France’s “hyper-president” has been criticized for being unfocused, for attempting too many things at once. But his omni-directional approach has proven to be an effective strategy. His pushing forcefully on so many fronts at the same time distracted his opponents and left them scattered. In the end it was they who were unfocused.

Now comes the rentrée, and in true hyper fashion Sarkozy has called the Assembly into session a week early (Sept. 22 rather than the scheduled Oct. 1) to tackle the next items on his agenda. In a remark aimed at legislators who might prefer slowing down to catch their breath, Prime Minister François Fillon said it wouldn’t be the brakes that were stepped on but the accelerator.

The next reforms concern two areas: profit sharing for the middle class, and minimum revenue for the poor. Profit sharing is mandated for a big majority in France. Companies with more than 50 employees are required to invest 5 percent of net profits in a fund to benefit employees directly. Known as “la participation,” the money is blocked for five years while the funds gather interest to encourage savings.

The plan now is to increase the level of profit sharing by as much as 20 percent, with a tax credit to compensate the company. The change in the law would also make it possible to have the money immediately, without waiting five years or meeting other strict criteria for early access. The argument is that the workers have a right to their money; the belief is that savings cashed in will be spent and thus stimulate the economy.

The enhancement of the social safety net further down the scale concerns workers who might come off the dole and take low paying jobs. The plan-already tested in some 40 départements throughout the country-would subsidize new wages up to the level of unemployment benefits. The government’s argument is that people should neither be encouraged to stay on unemployment, nor be penalized financially when they take a job.

In these proposals, as in the constitutional amendments, it is hard for an “Anglo-Saxon” (the coverall term for Americans and the British) outsider to see the dangers. But there is such knee-jerk opposition to anything Sarkozy puts forward that the debate in the National Assembly is bound to produce some highly original arguments.

Taken all together, Sarkozy’s reforms promise a society that is more open and less regimented, more business friendly and offers greater competitiveness and labor flexibility-as befits an economy that exports as many jobs now as it does luxury goods.

The 35-hour workweek is basically a dead letter now. The procedure for dismissals has been rationalized, making it less onerous to buy out ineffective employees. Special deals that gave select workers full retirement benefits at 55 have been eliminated and the number of years that must be worked to qualify for full pension benefits has been increased to 41, from 40-somewhat reducing the risks faced by the retirement system.

France’s potential for significant research was enhanced with changes that allow universities to raise private funding and to determine their standards both for student admission and faculty hiring. More tax revenues will be redirected as redundant military bases close. And overall productivity should benefit from a new guarantee of minimum service during transport strikes, which have paralyzed Paris frequently and the entire country occasionally. And the strike-prone seaports are to be privatized.

It doesn’t add up to the “rupture” that Sarkozy promised to get elected, Le Monde opined, but a mere improvement of the right to work. From across the Channel the marks are far less grudging. The Times of London called him a “great reformer” and wrote that by taking on “some of the most sacred cows in French social and economic life,” he may “indeed change the face” of the country. The Economist praised him for getting such profound changes past the country’s notoriously hostile labor unions. The Financial Times said in an opinion piece that his reforms, if continued, “will make him the most important French leader since De Gaulle.”

In France, only the resolutely faithful daily Figaro is so laudatory, while regretting that for all his accomplishments he has failed to push his popularity up even close to 50 percent.

Yet once again Sarkozy may understand something that the poll watchers don’t: There’s strength in personal unpopularity-what’s to lose by pushing hard? The public has made it obvious that they disapprove of Sarkozy’s Rolexes and Ray-Bans, of his private life played out so publicly, of the incandescence that can look adolescent more often than brilliant. But personal dislike is different from support for his reforms, which remains remarkably close in the polls to his election majority 15 months ago, which was 53 percent.

Suddenly the man who was written off as a lightweight now seems to be president in full despite the absence of popular approval. “We won’t ever pardon him,” said one acquaintance, a man who has walked the halls of power for a long time, who voted for Sarkozy and will vote for him again. “We don’t like his persona, his rudeness, his lack of discretion. But when you look at what he has done in just over a year, it’s a lot.”

No one, however, is writing off the unions yet. They are famous for their own kind of rentrée and nothing in Sarkozy’s reforms is likely to revise that.

There was an interesting coincidence between one of the constitutional reforms and France’s six-month turn in the presidency of the European Union. The presidency holds more honor than substance but allows each member of the Union in turn to talk about its goals and priorities, though the results are often limited to words. The constitutional change in question guarantees French voters a referendum on any new members-unless there’s a three-fifths majority of both Assembly and Senate. If the restriction seems aimed at Turkey, which is courting the Union but whose membership Sarkozy opposes, that guess would be right.

The EU presidency is not proving to be the perfect showcase for Sarkozy’s ambitions, nor has its bureaucracy, notable for its measured pace, been welcoming to his demanding personality. But France’s term lasts through December-there will be time enough before then to assess how Sarkozy’s leadership crosses France’s borders.

Globalization remains one of the biggest issues in France, blamed for everything from the soaring cost of fuel to the latest round of layoffs. One tiny domestic reform speaks to a kind of globalization that doesn’t make many headlines, the “o tempora, o mores” kind. As of next year, the age for buying alcoholic beverages will be fixed at 18 unless accompanied by a parent or responsible adult. The age had been 16, and did not apply to purchases in supermarkets or wine shops, just bars. The new law addresses the problem among teenagers that the French now call “binge drinking,” a recent phenomenon and yet another curse imported, like the phrase itself, from across the Channel and the Atlantic.

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