Danger man?

The one thing everybody knew they would get from Nicolas Sarkozy was change. So no one will be surpr

"I am a little Frenchman of immigrant stock . . .

"I have known failure and had to overcome it."

So said Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president of France, whose modest self-assessment masks an ambition the size of Macbeth's. That is not to say his reign will surprise France; it promises rather to shake the nation out of its hidebound ways. His rise to power breaks an old mould, presenting the world with a new France much as Margaret Thatcher once introduced a new Britain.

It seems clear that there will be greater change with Sarkozy than there could have been with Ségolène Royal, the left's defeated presidential candidate, because it is a surge of energy that the French have voted for. In the recent years of economic torpor, ghetto disturbances and social despond, France has looked like the sick country of Europe. Poor Ségolène, "new" as she appeared, was hobbled by a little too much old Socialist baggage to be able to offer enough energy. Though Sarkozy, aged 52, has served near the top of the conservative government for five years, he has none the less convinced enthralled voters that he offers change aplenty. With Sarko, it would seem, taboos are there to be broken.

Danger man! Brute! Chancer! Epithets that cling to the diminutive president-elect - mostly thrown by the humbled left, it must be said - have actually served to promote his cause: a break with past political thinking and with a national aversion to risk.

If this Thatcher-in-trousers is heading into an inevitable confrontation with the unions, no one can say he hasn't prepared France for the scrap. He will amend the 35-hour working week so that it is no longer the reposeful regulation it implies; he will force strikers to maintain a minimum service for trains, buses and other public services to prevent the total standstills to which France is wearily accustomed; he will slice into the bloated state bureaucracy, where the unions are strongest, by permitting one replacement for every two retiring government office workers. As a prospective union tamer, he has to contend not so much with the size of union membership (the numbers are proportionately smaller than in Britain), but with the benefit-driven French culture that the unions resolutely uphold.

Roughly stated, President Sarkozy's goal for the French is: put aside the welfare culture, work more, earn more and thereby enrich the country, thus creating more jobs. The accent is on the value of hard work and getting up early to start it. He and his supporters have coined a wonderfully bleak word for work-shyness that hardly needs translating - assistanat. Sarkozy's France is poised to remove equality and perhaps fraternity from the illustrious triad formed in 1789.

Uncompromising

His is a free-market, self-responsibility venture that he claims every advanced country in Europe, from Britain to those in Scandinavia, and lately Germany, has adopted to its advantage. In this sense, he represents not so much novelty as catch-up politics with a conservative twist. Long ago, when he first started planning his assault on the presidency, he provoked fellow conser vatives by saying that the traditional "French model", pursued to differing degrees by both left and right, no longer worked. His iconoclastic solution: "When something doesn't work, change to something that does." Conservative grandees, from the outgoing president Jacques Chirac down, have loathed Sarkozy for his pushiness, though they have felt it wise to keep him in charge of law and order as interior minister, where his uncompromising language has proved popular with most sections of opinion except the young and immigrants.

The man who will rule France for the next five years, very possibly ten, speaks his mind more than most politicians. He has taken the politics of the personal to unexplored frontiers in France and voters have evidently admired the candour, however contrived. Ségolène Royal, for all her courage, came across as closed and humourless by comparison, reciting her caring leftist beliefs by rote. In the end, his victory came with a clear six-point margin (53 per cent to 47 per cent) - quite enough, in view of a vigorous voter turnout, to give him full legitimacy to carry out his programme. Moreover, he has done France the favour of incapacitating the extreme right, ending the truculent career of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The "little Frenchman of immigrant stock" is indeed the son of an immigrant, a distressed but not impoverished one - a Hungarian squireling who landed in France before Hitler's war to avoid the turbulence in the Habsburg lands, and then married the daughter of a Jewish doctor from Ottoman Greece, himself a naturalised Frenchman and convert to Catholicism. The exotic marriage failed, leaving what Sarkozy calls a bitterly unhappy mark on his childhood. He became a lawyer before turning to full-time politics with extraordinary zeal in his mid-twenties. To the delight of the gossip columns, the personal candour he has come to trade upon reaches to owning up about his on-off relations with his wife, Cécilia, who twice left home on his route to the presidency and who at his moment of triumph on election night last Sunday was absent, showing up only for a mass late-night victory party on the Place de la Concorde.

Whiff of nationalism

As such, Sarkozy is a largely sympathetic figure even if you don't care for his policies. Besides the dynamism, there is an easy intimacy - a desire to be matey - that is likely to disarm even dour Gordon Brown. Tony Blair, whom Sarkozy has often cited as his example, made a video in French and rushed it to Paris for the TV networks to congratulate "mon ami Nicolas".

The object of Blair's affections is far from an ideologue: for Danger Man read, more accurately, Action Man. His emphasis on national identity - for which he intends to create a new government ministry - carries a whiff of nationalism of the kind that many people in France and abroad frown at, and is certainly a concern for today's mainly Arab immigrants in France, yet he presents it as the key to successful integration. That said, yes, he is tough on immigration. Those who insist on treating women as inferior or who don't learn French will fail the identity test he has in mind for newcomers. He wants to fix immigration quotas according to the newcomers' capacity to find work and housing. With him, French identity is deeply emotional stuff, as he indicated when claiming victory: "I love France as one loves someone dear who has given you everything, and now it is my turn to pay her back for what she has given me."

Don't look for grandeur, though. Listen instead for some sharp crowing from the French cock, especially on the vexed subject of Europe, which he is making his first priority. Immediately after taking office on 16 May he will head for Brussels and then Berlin, where Angela Merkel awaits him to revive the elusive EU constitution that France threw out in a referendum just two years ago. He is, he affirms, a committed European and he supports the concept of political union from which Blair and Brown have shrunk.

He will sign up to Merkel's slimmed-down constitutional treaty, containing the essentials of the rejected one, and have it ratified by a new French parliament to be elected in June. No more awkward referendums on Europe for Sarkozy.

The cock will crow loudest over Europe's economic status. While he embraces the market-capitalism ethic for his new France within the EU, Sarkozy is too wary of "outsourcing" to agree to leave Europe without protection from the rest of the world. Economic intervention is one temptation French leaders can't resist, and the new president will be no exception. For a brief period when he served as finance minister between his law-and-order responsibilities, Sarkozy's sniping at the European Central Bank showed that he dislikes the very thing that makes it tick - its independence. He wants member states to guide the bank in setting interest rates. Here lies ground for conflict with Brown, for while Britain is not in the eurozone, the PM-to-be prides himself on his initiative in making the Bank of England independent.

Royal and the French left are adrift once more, as they were after the previous presidential election in 2002. They are a social-democratic tribe without its script and logo: they confess they have been too slow to shed hoary socialist principles and lingering Marxist ideas for the modern electorate. Their outlook is bleak for the legislative elections on 10 and 17 June.

Sarkozy should have little trouble in inducing voters to give him a sizeable parliamentary majority in the two-round poll. He promises to give parliament more power, but only to assert himself as an American-style president exerting close executive control - less the omnipotent umpire that past presidents have been, more the Action Man. His ambition may yet be chopped and sawn by the unions, but the trees have a long, long way to go to Dunsinane.