The People's Choice: The French Election of 2007

Jun 27, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy is pro-business, a longtime friend of the United States, and the diversity of his new Cabinet is unprecedented. His victory is a turning point for France.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. Today our speaker is François Delattre. He will be talking about the French election.

When Jacques Chirac handed over the reigns of the presidency of France to his one-time protégé Nicolas Sarkozy, it made a generational change in French leadership. Mr. Sarkozy is the first French president born after the Second World War, the first Gaullist president never to have served in a government under Charles de Gaulle himself, the first Gaullist president since Pompidou not to have graduated from the elite École Nationale d'Administration, and he is also the first president whose father, a Hungarian immigrant, was not French.

By now, it should be apparent that the French voters could not have chosen a more different person to replace the outgoing president. To France Mr. Sarkozy brings energy, youth, and a bit of daring to the Élysée Palace.

In electing Mr. Sarkozy as the 23rd president of the Republic, French voters gave France a leader who has pledged to force through economic and social changes in a country that many say is in vital need of new directions.

He is seen as more pro-American than his predecessor and brings the promise of closer trans-Atlantic links. In fact, in his victory speech he even declared that America could count on France's friendship, as he said, "France will always be by America's side when they need her." But he also said that, "friendship is accepting that friends can act differently."

But can Mr. Sarkozy, who is often described as a man in a hurry and is sometimes seen as abrasive, be able to heal the deep divisions in French society? Can he deal with the problems of immigrant unrest? Will he be able to limit France's generous unemployment insurance program and its 35-hour work week? Or will tough reform policies lead to renewed domestic tension?

As one of the new generation of leaders sweeping to power across Europe, he was not embroiled in the bruising debate between the United States and its allies over the invasion of Iraq. He has given no indication that he would send French troops to Iraq, and he has threatened to pull the French contingent out of Afghanistan. How, then, will his professed admiration for the United States play out in foreign policy terms?

To provide the much needed insight into this recent election, I am so pleased that François has agreed to address us today. When I first met our speaker, it was instantly and unequivocally clear to me that the French government certainly knew what they were doing when they appointed François to serve as the French Consul-General in the Big Apple.

Our guest is not only a very skilled diplomat, but he is also an extraordinary representative of his country. He understands the pulse of our city and the sometimes complicated, but enduring, ties between our two nations. This is his second posting in the United States, as he was head of the French Embassy's Press and Information Service in Washington from 1998-2002, where he was in charge of relations with the media in the United States.

A career diplomat, he was on the foreign policy team of President Chirac from 1995-1998, with particular responsibility for security and defense issues. Before coming to New York, he was Deputy Chief of Staff to Mr. Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister. In his career at the French Ministry, which he joined in 1989, he has held posts at the French Embassy in Bonn and in the Foreign Ministry's Department of Strategic Affairs and Disarmament. François holds a degree in international law and is a graduate of Sciences Po.

While campaigning, Nicolas Sarkozy provided an introduction to a discourse of the possible. In May he was given a mandate to revive France and, many would argue, to achieve the impossible. Even so, there is no doubt that he will change the status quo. What this election means for France, the European Union, America, and the world is the question our speaker plans to address.

Please join me in welcoming a very special friend, our guest François Delattre.


FRANÇOIS DELATTRE: Thank you very much. You said it all. I have nothing to add. Thank you very much, Joanne, for your very kind words.

Dear Joanne, Excellencies, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me, as the Consul-General of France here since August 2004, to share this breakfast with you. I would like to thank the Carnegie Council for giving me the wonderful opportunity to speak before such a distinguished audience.

May I also express my warm thanks, in particular, to Joel Rosenthal, the President of the Carnegie Council, and to my dear friend, Joanne Myers, the Director of Public Affairs Programs, for inviting me today.

If I may add, you are doing an outstanding work in terms of relationships, especially with the outside world, on the international front. I would like to thank you for your leadership and what you are doing. The Carnegie Council is really today one of the most highly regarded, respected, influential, independent voices in the academic and policy community. So thank you, and please continue.

I was invited to talk to you today about the "new France" in a way, about the new perspectives in my country, after President Nicolas Sarkozy's election. Make no mistake about it, there is a whole new political situation in my country. You said it all, by the way, Joanne, as usual, so I have nothing to add.

As you know, Nicholas Sarkozy was elected on May 6th the new president of France with a clear majority of the votes, 53 percent, and with an extraordinarily high turnout—85 percent—which says a lot, by the way, about the vitality of democracy in my country.

The subsequent legislative elections on June 10th and 17th gave President Sarkozy's UMP party ["Union for a Popular Movement"] a solid majority in the new National Assembly, with 318 seats out of 577. In addition—and this is also, I believe, important—extremist parties at both ends of the spectrum, the National Front on the far right and the Communist Party on the far left, scored very poorly.

So who are, in a few words, the new political players in my country?

A former attorney, President Sarkozy, at 52, represents a new generation of French politicians. He has held several Cabinet positions before, among them Finance Minister and Interior Minister. Nicolas Sarkozy is of Hungarian descent through is father and of Jewish-Greek descent on his mother's side.

He is a very close and longtime friend of the United States. Let me quote what he stated the very day of his election in his victory speech: "I want to issue a call to our American friends to tell them they can count on a friendship which has been forged through the tragedies of history that we have confronted together. I want to tell them that France will always be at their side when they need her."

That speech he made a few minutes after he knew he was elected the new President of France.

The new Cabinet chosen by President Sarkozy and François Fillon is also a very unusual one. First, it features an equal number of men and women, which is unprecedented in France. There is also unmatched diversity in terms of both political affiliation and background. And, last but not least, the Cabinet includes many, many close friends of this country, of the United States. Let me give you a few examples among the most influential ministers.

The new Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, reflects the inclusion of major political figures on the left. Bernard Kouchner was a co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning relief organization Doctors Without Borders, and he also was a United Nations administrator for Kosovo a few years ago. He, too, has been profoundly marked by his personal history, since his paternal grandparents, Russian-born Jews, perished in Auschwitz.

And, still on the subject of foreign policy, the new Diplomatic Advisor to President Sarkozy, who you know, our friend Jean-David Levitte—also a close friend of mine I should add—was until a few days ago the French Ambassador to the United States.

So you see French foreign policy is in very good hands, in particular with respect to French-American relations.

Now, on the economic front, the new Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, has spent much of her career in the private sector and, to be more precise, in this country, in the United States. She is a former Chairperson of the Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, quite unusual for a French Finance Minister. In 2002 The Wall Street Journal ranked her fifth in its listing of the most successful women in European business. So our Finance Minister knows a bit about a market-driven economy, which is good.

Last but not least, several members of the Cabinet come from immigrant backgrounds. To give you just a few examples, the 41-year-old Justice Minister, Rachida Dati, a brilliant magistrate, is the daughter of a Moroccan laborer. The new Minister for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, also the daughter of North African immigrants, is a militant feminist who has led street protests demanding rights and protection for Muslim women in France, quite unusual also.

So, as you can see, with President Sarkozy we have a whole new generation of politicians—new in age as well as in background. As my friend Jim Hoagland wrote in The Washington Post a few days ago, "This is a cabinet that exceeds that of any U.S. administration, much less former French government, in its ethnic, social, and political diversity and daring."

Now, what is the agenda of the new French administration on the domestic front?

As you know, President Sarkozy was elected on a platform of major domestic reforms, reforms that are needed. In his own words, "I want to rehabilitate work, authority, morale, respect, and merit."

Among the first important pro-business reforms that President Sarkozy has already announced, I would point out a major tax and labor plan to stimulate growth, investment, and consumption. For example, to encourage home ownership, mortgage interest payments will be tax-deductible. This measure will clearly promote growth in construction, but also in related industries by giving consumers more disposable income.

Another good example is overtime. As President Sarkozy underlined, employees should be able to work more in order to earn more. This is common sense, quite frankly, but something that France has on occasion forgotten. So to stimulate consumption and give people a greater incentive to work longer hours, overtime income will not be taxed, which is very, very important. This is obviously a major step forward that President Sarkozy intends to couple with other incentives to increase labor market flexibility.

I could cite many other initiatives being finalized: to lower the corporate tax rate; to limit public-sector strikes, in the transportation field in particular; and to make it easier for skilled foreign professionals to obtain work permits and immigration papers.

So we have, as you can see, a whole series of major domestic reforms going forward aimed at developing a new proactive business environment in my country and enhancing France's role in today's globalized world.

France has in this respect many competitive assets to succeed on this path. Let me just underline a few basic facts to support this:

(1) One, together with Ireland, France is the demographic exception in Europe, with a birth rate of two children per woman. France is the only European country which has a birth rate that matches the United States and that is renewing the generations.

(2) France is seeing record highs in terms of founding new business startups. Two hundred and thirty-five thousand such new businesses were founded last year, which marks a spectacular increase compared with the previous years. This illustrates the vitality of the French entrepreneurship. And let's not forget, after all, that "entrepreneur" is a French word.

(3) France is a leader—and we tend to forget it in this country—in science and technology. I will give you just two small examples, among many others, to illustrate this.

  • First example: education. France has a very highly educated work force, particularly in science. Twenty-two percent of the French population aged 20-29 graduated with a degree in science or technology, compared with 10 percent in the United States. This is, especially in the long run, I believe, a very important asset for my country. So the first example is education.

  • Second example: energy. France is home to some of the key world players in this field, with great companies-like Total, the oil company; EDF for electricity; GDF for gas; Suez for gas distribution; Vallourec in the pipeline industry, to name only a few.

Among these players, AREVA is the world leader in nuclear energy. In its home market, in France, it manufactures 80 percent of France's electricity consumption. Its know-how in nuclear plant construction, combined with the world's growing need for non-fossil energy, gives AREVA, I think, a unique competitive edge worldwide. And the United States and Asia, by the way, are two of AREVA's strategic priorities.

In the same vein, and most recently, France won an international competition to host what we call the ITER project, a major nuclear fusion research facility. It will be located in Cadarache in the south of France.

So France's leadership in the nuclear industry is important because it is a key economic and also strategic and environmental asset for my country. This makes France one of the most energy-independent countries in the developed world. This also makes France one of the leading countries in the fight against global warming, which President Sarkozy has made, as you know, a key priority, including a key diplomatic priority.

As a result of these important competitive assets, France is today the third-leading destination worldwide for direct foreign investment, after Britain and the United States. And my country is the first destination for American investment in the Eurozone.

In parallel to this, French investment in the United States has grown spectacularly over the last years, and, depending on the year, France is the second- or third-largest foreign investor in the United States, supporting here more than 600,000 American jobs. This puts us behind the United Kingdom and on a par with Germany and Japan. So it is not bad.

Now, what is happening on the foreign policy front? Here, no doubt about it, French-American relations-and this is good news-are back on the right track.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • France and the United States, first, are among the closest allies in the fight against terrorism. President Sarkozy, by the way, has been a key player in this field for a long time, especially in his former position as Interior Minister.

  • Before he was elected, Mr. Sarkozy made a point of coming to New York for the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in a demonstration of sympathy and solidarity with New York and America in the fight against terrorism. While he was here, he presented New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly with the Legion of Honor at a very moving ceremony at the French Consulate with Mayor Bloomberg and many other dignitaries.

  • In the case of Iran, now the United States and France are also working very closely together to exert maximum pressure on Teheran, with one clear goal: to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. This is for my country, this is for President Sarkozy in particular, one of the key strategic priorities of our time.

  • In the same vein, our two countries successfully took the lead in Lebanon to strengthen its independence and obtain the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from this country. I think there is an important lesson here in Lebanon. The situation remains very difficult there, obviously, but there is a lesson in what we already have done together there: when France and the United States are really united, they can make a difference on the international stage.

  • France has also taken the initiative a few days ago for an informal meeting in July in Paris bringing together the leaders of Lebanon's warring factions.

I could cite many, many other examples

Our two countries are also working closely together to support the Palestinian president in his confrontation with Hamas and to try to get the Russians onboard on the future of Kosovo. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Paris a few days ago to discuss these matters and beyond with President Sarkozy and her French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner. The meetings took place, I can tell you, in a very warm and friendly atmosphere.

Condoleezza Rice also participated on Monday in an international conference on Darfur hosted by President Sarkozy, who has made addressing the Darfur crisis a priority of his foreign policy. The conference was very useful, in particular, to solidify international backing and support for a combined United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force that would put more than 20,000 soldiers in Darfur. As you know, this is a key priority, I believe, for all of us.

As you know, promoting European integration is also a priority for my country and for President Sarkozy. In his thinking—and I believe it is important—Europe is destined to become naturally America's principal partner on the international scene, and certainly not a counterweight or competitor to the United States.

The European Union, as you know, was stalled after the "no" vote in the referenda in France and the Netherlands on the European Constitution in 2005.

President Sarkozy, together of course with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others, was instrumental in bringing Europe back from the brink of crisis, where it was. He first got all the European partners to agree to the plan of a simplified treaty, as you know. He then played a key role in the EU Summit a few days ago in breaking the deadlock, especially with our Polish friends.

In this respect, The New York Times wrote last Monday, and I quote: "The new French President Nicolas Sarkozy has reasserted his country's traditional role at the diplomatic heart of Europe by emerging as the main force behind a deal that brought the European Union back from the brink of crisis."

As we are celebrating this year, as some of you may know, the 250th anniversary of Lafayette's birth—"the French Founding Father," as the New York Historical Society nicely put it—let us never forget that French-American relations are based, possibly more than any other bilateral relationship, on shared values.

From Yorktown to the beaches of Normandy, and today in Kosovo, in the Balkans, in Africa, and in Afghanistan of course, our two countries have always stood shoulder to shoulder to promote the values of freedom and democracy that, after all, we together gave the world a bit more than 200 years ago.

And if you think about it, the American dream of the Founding Fathers has much in common with the ideals of the French Revolution. To take just one example, it should come as no surprise that it was a Frenchman and a great American lady, Professor René Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who together wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of World War II.

So French-American relations are based on common interests, for sure. But our friendship is more than that—and that is why it is very solid, I believe—it is solidly anchored in shared values. Let us never forget this.

I thank you for your attention.

JOANNE MYERS: Your presentation was trés magnifique. Thank you.

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