Le Monde Diplomatique
Like the pied piper of Hamelin, Nicolas Sarkozy initially enchanted eminent figures on all sides with his verve and brio. The media were equally spellbound and joined in the mass hysteria. France was virtually hypnotised by this disconcertingly hyperactive president, fizzing with vague plans.
This was clear from the first economic and social measures announced: reductions in tax on high incomes and death duties, a tax shield, medical franchises, longer working hours – the essence of neo-liberalism. And it was even clearer from Sarkozy’s speeches on 5 September, at the Medef (Mouvement des entreprises de France) business seminar, and on 18 September, the 40th anniversary of the AJIS, the association of social security reporters (1).
The priority, he said, was to deal with the question of special pension schemes. They must be reformed without delay because, in most cases, the circumstances that justified the introduction of special benefits before the second, or even the first world war, no longer existed. Reforms would include extending the qualifying period from 40 to 41 years.
Health service funding would also be reviewed, he said, because the health insurance system could not cover everything. Some costs should be met by individual insurance schemes. In other words, patients must have private insurance as they do in the United States, where almost 50 million people have no health cover (2).
Sarkozy repeated that the 35-hour week rule would have to be abolished. He also proposed to end early retirement schemes, and introduce stronger and more effective procedures and sanctions against unemployed people who refused two job offers. Such a frontal attack on hard-won bastions of social security is almost unheard of and the left is right to condemn it as the greatest offensive to be mounted against the social security system in 50 years (3).
The new foreign policy set out in a speech at the French ambassadors’ conference contains some astonishing proposals. On the Middle East, it marks a revolutionary departure from Paris’s international position, as defined by De Gaulle in 1958 when the 5th Republic was established.
Sarkozy confirmed his support for President George W Bush and the neo-conservative hardliners, adding that the first and probably the most important challenge facing France was a clash between Islam and the West. Quite apart from the absurdity of stating the problem in these terms, there was not a word about Washington’s shortcomings or the damage caused by the failure to settle the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
On Iran, his position – as stated by the French foreign secretary, Bernard Kouchner – is exactly the same as the State Department’s. War on Tehran is an option that may be considered and in preparation for that contingency, the defence minister, Hervé Morin, has let it be known that France may resume its full place in the integrated military structure of Nato.
Sarkozy is a gifted tactician and a master of manoeuvre but to judge by his recent sallies into the areas of social security and foreign policy, he is no strategist. He lacks vision.