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Bill Emmott

Great Britain

Bill Emmott is the former editor of The Economist magazine, a leading international current affairs publication from England. He is now an independent writer, speaker, and consultant on international affairs. Close.

Bill Emmott

Great Britain

Bill Emmott is the former editor of The Economist magazine, a leading international current affairs publication from England. more »

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Not Decline, But Rupture with the Past

The moment when people start saying that a country is “doomed to decline” is generally a good time to buy its stock – or, at least, to become optimistic. France is certainly not doomed to decline. And the fact that after the first round of voting the country looks most likely to choose Nicolas Sarkozy as its next president is pretty good evidence for that proposition.

France is suffering from the same ailment that many prosperous, mature, developed countries have: its public policy-making process has become paralyzed by powerful interest groups, and its political elite has for too long been beholden to those groups, or else simply too afraid to confront them. It takes a brave outsider to start the process of confrontation, and such an outsider is often elected only once enough of the electorate gets fed up with the paralysis: a Ronald Reagan, a Margaret Thatcher or a Junichiro Koizumi (in America, Britain and Japan respectively).

That is precisely Sarkozy’s appeal. Yes, he has been a minister in center-right governments under President Jacques Chirac and so is not a complete outsider. But as a minister he has acted as if he is campaigning against his own government. Indeed, for as long as President Chirac flirted with running for the presidency again, that is just what Sarkozy was doing. Sarkozy is not from the traditional French political elite, being the son of Hungarian immigrants, being Jewish, and not having graduated from the elite training school, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. He is deliberately provocative, and opts to speak in what some think of as a vulgar form of French. He calls for a “rupture,” a break with the past. In the French context, he is a Reagan or a Thatcher, if with rather greater energy and work ethic than Reagan.

Admittedly, France has what sometimes seems to be as full a set of checks and balances as America does. Those checks will begin with the elections in June for the National Assembly, in which it is perfectly possible that the new president will not command a majority – for some may vote for him, but then vote left in the assembly elections in order to balance him by “splitting the ticket.” The checks extend to France’s infamous culture of political activism, of mounting street demonstrations to block controversial measures. The paralysis is well defended by such barricades. Yet a brave, determined outsider, a Sarkozy-type, will seek to break the barricades down, just as Reagan did with the air-traffic controllers and Thatcher did with the coal miners.

But will he be elected? With two weeks to go before the second round, no one can say for sure. Yet the first round results suggest that the ballot is very much his to lose. His vote was the best first-round result for a center-right candidate since 1974. The third- and fourth-placed candidates who now drop out – Francois Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen – are respectively from the center and the far-right, which means that Sarkozy should stand a fine chance of recruiting a majority of their supporters for his cause.

A “rupture” is what France needs. If the country votes for it on May 6th, then President Nicolas Sarkozy will stand every chance of showing that his country is not doomed to decline at all. Its excellent educational standards, its cadres of highly globalized managers, its sophisticated technology, all mean that this is a country with a great potential for raising its game.

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