On Sunday 29 January 2012, French President Nicolas Sarkozy (once again) monopolised prime time on several French television channels in order to announce a number of important economic measures to be undertaken in the short to medium term. With under 3 months to go before the Presidential elections one cannot ignore the significance of his timing. Nevertheless, and despite the numerous (and frankly irritating) efforts of Claire Chazal to coax it from him, Sarkozy consistently refused to officially declare his candidature for the forthcoming elections. However, given his tone and the nature of the reforms announced it is clear that Sarkozy will be candidate and is using up all his Presidential credit in order to position himself as strongly as possible for what promises to be quite a challenge. So what did he propose and how should this intervention be interpreted?
The programme lasted for 70 minutes and was almost exclusively (except for a rather pointless few minutes at the end when he was asked if he had any regrets etc) dedicated to how France can deal with the ongoing economic crisis. The clear priorities for Sarkozy are to render the French economy more competitive and tackling the perpetual problem of unemployment. The measures announced were as follows:
– Housing – a 30% increase in planning permissions in a bid to reinvigorate this stagnant industry
– Banque d’industrie – creation of a bank with funds dedicated to freeing up credit for businesses to invest
– Youth unemployment -the establishment of a legal minimum quota of young people on apprenticeships in businesses with over 250 employees
– Protection sociale – the possibility for employees to have a say in the flexibility of how the workplace is organised. So for example, if a business hits hard times the employees can offer to work less/more in order to secure the long term future of their jobs – read the possibility to negate the 35 hour week
– VAT increase – in order to finance a reduction in ‘charges’ for employers that is aimed to boost competitiveness
– Tax on financial transactions – an attempt to lead the way on this very controversial issue.
A number of trends were decipherable during this intervention. It is clear that confronting the economic crisis and its consequences has become Sarkozy’s number one priority and the area that he feels he will be judged upon. He is clearly reverting back to the discourse used during his 2007 campaign where he refuses to accept that France can somehow exist in isolation and survive economically. In some respects he points the finger at the ‘French social model’ as one of the main reasons to explain why France lacks competitiveness and why unemployment continues to be such an issue. Whilst he compares France to other nations such as the UK and the US, perhaps most striking was his constant reference to Germany as the example to be followed. Whether in reference to unemployment rates, productions costs, competitiveness, industrial relations or the VAT question, the same point repeatedly was made; the strength of the German economy can be explained by the fact that the Germans were courageous enough to make difficult changes that France has avoided – if they can do it then so can France.
This insistence on the German model is consistent with Sarkozy’s approach to the crisis over the last six months. He clearly sees the maintenance of close ties with Germany as key in the survival of the European project. His insistence on the Franco-German axis as the strong core required is indicative of his determination to see France remain at the forefront of driving the EU. Falling into line with the German approach helps maintain close relations despite the recent credit rating downgrade that confirmed the growing gulf between the two nations. In terms of the forthcoming elections, this line on the economy and the crisis will be maintained. Sarkozy has set his approach out and has chosen how he will preside over the crisis and how he will campaign on this issue as a candidate in the forthcoming elections. The recent rumours that Merkel is to join Sarkozy on the campaign trail are indicative of how much the incumbent president is putting all his eggs in the crisis basket. His hope is to project the image of the candidate so central to laying the foundations that will enable France and Europe to see off the crisis that the electorate may consider it too much of a gamble to put someone else in the Elysée. However, in so doing the risks for Sarkozy are clear. Having placed so much emphasis on saving France from the crisis, any further bad news on this front (of which the loss of the coveted AAA maybe just the beginning) between now and 22 April may just persuade the French electorate that the time has come for a change of tack.
The video of Nicolas Sarkozy’s TV appearance can be viewed here.