"How can we hope to give back our social model every chance of success if we can't make difficult decisions?", Nicolas Sarkozy (Versailles, June 22, 2009)
When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected to the Presidency of France, he was carrying the profile of a tough, neo-conservative politician; mainly as a result of his hardcore stance during the 2005 Paris riots. More than two years after his triumphal victory, his political choices - as well as his rhetoric - prove that, in fact, he is far more progressive than he was expected to be.
During his keynote speech in front of France's Parliament in Versailles, President Sarkozy made a quite interesting reference which, however, was overshadowed by the "Burka fuss". Sarkozy mentioned the significant role of 'Social State' in the efforts to overcome the present financial crisis - while, on the same time, he named the anglosaxon economic model (that is, the neoliberal concept of capitalism with less state involvement) as part of the problem, condemning tax rises and austerity measures to fight the economic crisis. Regarding his government's stance on the crisis, he said: "I will not conduct an austerity policy because it has always failed in the past" while, later, he pointed out among other things, that "the State played its role of giving a lead, being a force for progress, as has so often been the case in our history..." It's politically generous for a leader of the Right to acknowledge the importance of the so-called 'Social State,' especially in times of severe economic crisis.
Indeed, when Mr. Sarkozy says openly that "the crisis has brought the French model back into fashion", he indirectly admits that the neoliberal economic policies of the last decades consist of part of today's financial deadlock. The french social model consists of a clear reference to a more equitable distribution of taxation, to the support of the unprivileged citizens, inter-generational fairness and social protection, especially for young workers and other vulnerable groups of the society. In Versailles, the President said that the government "must protect the most vulnerable citizens, those who are suffering the most", since they - the vulnerable citizens - are the real victims of the neoliberal-based financial crisis.
Nevertheless, its true that President Sarkozy has to balance effectively between the French social model and the need for fundamental reforms. But, the current social system of France seems to be economically ineffective and confused, as it tries to compromise social solidarity with strict, maybe uncomfortable, reforms which provoke reaction from the powerful workers' unions. Therefore, Sarkozy's intention to give a new opportunity to the French model of the Social State ("The French model once again has its opportunity") is of an especial interest and consists an unexpectedly progressive choice for a politician of Liberal Conservatism.
"These decisions, we all know what they are on: secondary schools (lyce'es), universities, vocational training, retirement pensions, dependency, public services, reorganization of our government departments and public services... and of course the deficits." (Nicolas Sarkozy, 22.6.2009).
But, actually, the real success for Sarkozy will be to reform not only his country's economic structure, but the French Social model itself. The actual challenge for the President is to create a new perspective for France's inflexible labor market, to cut large tax breaks for wealthy families and to reshape the policies on income re-distribution. That is not an easy job, as long as these generous reforms are, in most of the cases, not at all welcome by those (e.g. upper-middle-class retirees, working unions etc) who feel that their privileges are under threat.
However, progressive and generous political choices are the choices which challenge the so-called 'privileges'. The reference of Sarkozy to the need for more 'Social State' consists of an - indirect but meaningful - dispute of the established European anglosaxon economic mοdel. Respectively, the expressed preposition for reforms within France's economic structure consists of a clear challenge for the old-fashioned, actually conservative, ideology of the supposedly unfair abolition of privileges.
Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to reform France's economy and politics has produced mixed results so far. The contribution of the Palais de l'Elyse'e in global diplomatic issues during the last two years has left a positive impression to those who are involved with international relations. But, perhaps the most significant effect of the two-year leadership of Sarkozy is the essence of what he expressed during his speech in Versailles: His public confession that the answer to the economic crisis is the invigoration of 'Social State' and therefore a second chance to the French model, which in a reformed edition, could prove it's diachronic value - not only for France, but for the whole of Europe.