Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the right-centrist party, was sworn in as the 23rd President of the French Republic on May 16, 2007, after defeating the Socialist candidate, Ségoléne Royal. The new President, often called ‘Sarko,’ is a second-generation Hungarian immigrant of Jewish descent and a professing Catholic. With a background in corporate law and a resume that includes two terms as Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy now succeeds Jacques Chirac as President. On May 17, Stanford’s Forum on Contemporary Europe hosted a roundtable discussion to evaluate how Sarkozy won and what his election will mean for both France and the global community.
The roundtable discussion was held over lunch in Encina Hall where five panelists sat behind a rectangular table in the shadow of the American, French, and European Union flags. The panel included Stanford professors Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, and Margaret Cohen, as well as visiting Hoover Fellow Patrick Chamorel and Berkeley history professor Tyler Stovall. Together, the five panelists brought forth a wealth of knowledge to the discussion.
Cohen, Dupuy, and Mudime-Boyi seemed more concerned with the details of the election than its broader impact. Cohen introduced her position by remarking that the visible differences between French and American political culture should challenge the conventional wisdom that the two nations are growing more similar as a product of globalization. In contrast to the 60% turnout for the American presidential election in 2004, French voters turned out at a whopping rate of 85% while giving Sarkozy a landslide margin of 7% over Royal. Dupuy and Mudime-Boyi pointed to the slight majority of women and the overwhelming support of the immigrant and Jewish communities as critical to Sarkozy’s victory. Dupuy also applauded Sarkozy’s impressive theft of votes from the far-right candidate to seal his victory. The two panelists were in firm agreement that the French Left was not as well-organized as it has been in the past, acknowledging that division within the Socialist party contributed to Sarkozy’s success. They also cited the low percentage of votes for the Communist party (6%) as an additional factor. The Left will look to strengthen and realign itself for the next election, however, when it hopes to put up a stronger fight.
Chamorel was the first to delve into the question of how Sarkozy’s election would affect France. While some compare Sarkozy to Reagan and Thatcher, Chamorel cautions that France’s current rightward movement is a bit different. Yes, France is finally moving away from the ideals of the Sixties and looking to the Right for morality, but its citizens’ disenchantment is not on the level of British distaste when Thatcher took office. Nor is Sarkozy the laissez-faire champion that Reagan was. Indeed, one panelist went so far as to suggest that Sarkozy was an “interventionist” at both home and abroad, though he seemed to imply that Sarkozy’s particular brand of conservatism has yet to be revealed.
With regard to global relations, Sarkozy’s role will largely be defined by the current state of international affairs. Stovall commented that as Tony Blair steps down, Sarkozy will be on the defensive in order to avoid being perceived as America’s new puppet. And as the European Left has largely been on the retreat in recent years, Sarkozy may emerge as the new face of the European conservative movement, thus giving greater weight to his personal decisions. But despite these potential outcomes, the panelists generally sidestepped the question of broader impact—a response indicative of the uncertainty surrounding Sarkozy’s future influence. Chamorel was the only one to generalize his opinion, saying that Sarkozy would be “good” for Europe. One thing is for sure – while the President of France is at times a figurehead who defers to the Prime Minister, Sarkozy intends to reverse these roles and step up as the true governor of his nation.