The New Europeans

Wall Street Opinion Journal | May 5, 2007

Can an election change France?

The changing of the guard in Europe’s biggest countries is a chance for the Continent to renew itself. That’s the good news. Here’s the other kind: This fresh crop of leaders doesn’t look well-placed to pull it off.

New political management will be in place by summer. Whomever the French elect tomorrow, the next President is going to be a younger face. Tony Blair plans to set a date next week to give the keys to 10 Downing Street to Chancellor Gordon Brown. Germany and Italy chose new leaders in the past 18 months. All are different, and Britain is the one economic standout, but this foursome sets the pace in Europe.

France is a good test case. Its socioeconomic troubles are nothing unusual for Old Europe–from stagnant growth to a debt-ridden welfare state to restive, underemployed young Muslims. But the political barriers to tackling these problems are highest in France. The presidential election, pitting center-right Nicolas Sarkozy against Socialist Ségolène Royal, might provide a mandate for change. According to an Ipsos survey on the day of the first round of voting April 22, the three main issues were unemployment, purchasing power and economic insecurity.
In the runoff, Ségo and Sarko have proposed very different solutions. Ms. Royal would bump up the minimum wage, already the highest in the OECD, by 20% and spend lavishly on social programs. She wants to make life easier for business, but the bulk of her program is old school Socialism. If Ms. Royal is the vision of a reassuring but untenable past, Mr. Sarkozy promises an uncertain, tumultuous, possibly brighter future. He mixes free markets and protectionism, yet emphasizes “action” and “rupture.” The man wants to shake France out of its doldrums, the woman to softly nudge.

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