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France braced for change(2)

2005-09-12 00:00

  In political style, the two men could scarcely differ more. Mr de Villepin is aristocratic, polished, a diplomat. Mr Sarkozy is pugnacious, plain-talking, a lawyer. Conventional wisdom has it that their politics are wide apart too. Loyal to the president whom he served for seven years as chief-of-staff, Mr de Villepin is his political heir. But Mr Sarkozy, who backed a rival candidate against Mr Chirac in 1995, has always marked his political distance from the veteran Gaullist. Yet a close look at the two politicians' speeches this week hints at something new: Mr de Villepin has begun to steal some of Mr Sarkozy's clothes.

  Breaking taboos in a welfare-cushioned society, the prime minister declared that he wanted to “restore the value of work” and “make work pay”; Mr Sarkozy talked of the need to “make work central” and to reward “the France that gets up early in the morning”. Mr de Villepin vowed to crack down on welfare fraud and to balance welfare “rights and obligations”; Mr Sarkozy insisted that there would be “no rights without equivalent obligations”. Mr de Villepin said he would end heavy taxes that “discourage work and damage the attractiveness of our country”; Mr Sarkozy called for a limit of 50% on combined personal taxes and insurance contributions. Both promised help for the middle class.

  To be sure, these similarities are quite differently wrapped. Mr de Villepin says he wants only to “set the French model straight”, whereas Mr Sarkozy intends to “reinvent a new French model”, that “breaks with the past 30 years of traditional political life in this country”. Yet the trend is nonetheless striking. Already, Mr de Villepin has introduced a new, more flexible two-year employment contract for small firms, addressing the problem of labour-market inflexibility that Mr Sarkozy so often bemoans. And he has declared himself against Turkish entry to the EU, another of Mr Sarkozy's pet positions—in line with public opinion but against Mr Chirac's (and hence France's)position.

  Why this apparent quest for a radical alternative from within the president's own party? The answer lies partly in the war of succession: after this week, a third term for Mr Chirac must surely be ruled out. But also in the electorate's general disgruntlement, which partly explains the French “no” earlier this year. Unemployment has begun to drop a little, to 9.9%, but remains structurally high. Fears about job losses are undermining confidence at a time when the cost of living, worsened by high oil prices, is already squeezing purses. The economy is expected to grow by only 1.5-2% in 2005. And, after ten years with Mr Chirac in the presidency, there is a sense that it is time for a change.

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