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8 May 2007

Bad idea v No idea

Pandering to all sides has left Sarkozy preaching to a divided church

By Darren Straker

“What happened, why Sarkozy?” I asked my neighbour from the adjacent balcony last night at 10pm. We were standing outside looking across Toulouse to Le Merail, the hot spot ghetto of Toulouse, waiting for the cars to spontaneously ignite . ‘It’s easy, the choice was between Sarkozys’ bad idea and Ségolènes’ no idea’ he said.

Interesting I thought to myself as another fire engines siren dopplered its way across town. It won’t be the last time we hear this tonight. Better open another bottle of this good Fronton before the barricades go up; there’s nothing like a bunker mentality when it’s all going down hill.

The winds of change are coming, you don’t have to check the Meteo France web site to see that, it’s been the background call to all of the campaigning messages; the choice was between tropical cyclone Ségolène and force ten hurricane Psycho … sorry, Sarko. The hatches are being battened down and red shoes are being tapped like Fred Astaire, mostly in morse code for S.O.S. – the French may not be in Kansas anymore, but with Sarkozy they have shifted ideologically closer to it than any time in the past.

Sarkozy’s 100 days to put a mandate to the people is the calm before the storm. The ambitious economic reforms proposed will meet head on with the unions, who once mobilised are going to make for a summer – and probably – winter of organized industrial action. The unions are strong here, they’re also wealthy and represent a sector of non state controlled power, which from recent experience, will resist most of the changes proposed by the Sarko not just on economic grounds either, they have a strong power base – surrendering to Sarkos plans, surrenders their power base.

Sarko – among other things – wants to break the unions. Several colleagues have mentioned the miners’ strike in the 80’s as an example of a government breaking the unions. The militant unionists here make Arthur Scargill look like a primary school teacher. Better dust of the velo as the buses aren’t going to be running for the summer and probably a while longer. When the pain starts biting in the countryside, a chill’s going to run through right through this government.

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So day one, newspaper headlines are predicting a modern economic miracle or impending doom depending on their political strip, radio shows are full of post election chatter about what’s going to happen and I had a suitable post election hang over in tow and no aspirin. So, suitably addled, I walked the 25 meters to the nearest pharmacy.

‘”Bonjour, avez-vous un paquet de l’aspirine? I asked. ‘Oui, c’est une pharmacie’. I wasn’t in the mood for French sarcasm, being of a Fronton induced frail condition.

I took the packet, ‘Merci’. As I was leaving, I made some comments about customer service, then thought to myself as I got to the door, why stop there? I launched into a mini rant:

“Do you realise there are five pharmacies within 400 metres of here, if you walk 800 metres there are twelve, 1000 metres there are eighteen! Yes, eighteen; all very handy, all very lucrative, all heavily state subsidised, all operating with massive state support in the form of cost control and intervention from the extensive employment supported participation which is mandatory. In addition, none of your businesses operate in a normal business environment, all of them are insulated from having to be profitable, as the state supports the costs on the products and this in turn supports the state sector bureaucracy.

‘Do you realise” I was in full swing by now, “that when Sarkozy introduces his economic reforms the level of state funding will diminish and you will have to operate as a functioning business? If I can save 1 euro by walking an extra 80 metres to the next pharmacy I’ll do it, as will everyone else – there will be competition, look it up in the dictionary…it’s next to calamity”.

I was on a roll…she was on the phone…to the police, so I scarpered the 25 metres to the apartment, sounding like an LSE lecturer and feeling like another five hours sleep.

This, slightly elaborated example, is typical of the intended devolution of state intervention and the introduction of commercial business rules into formally protected/insulated industries. That’s what the small business haven’t grasped. Ironically, for the pharmacies, there’s a bitter pill in the offing. The business landscape will be different in 12 months, mark my words.

Not everything Sarkozys’ proposing is necessarily bad – freeing up the employment legislation, reducing state control on commerce, removing the restrictive 35 hour week, not penalising small companies by punitive employment legislation are a few good examples. The breeze is picking up, it’s called the L’autan around here; blows like a storm for two weeks and then disappears. If only.

I dont think the full ramifications have been grasped by the French concerning what’s in store.

Every other country that has tried to imposed an ambitious level of economic reform has run into difficulty – France will be a major problem. The litmus test is around the corner with the first draft of reforms.

When speaking to people about the intended reforms,they tend to mention the ideas and what’s in it for them, there’s not too much concern about the long term effects. Everyone wants a job, that’s normal, economic progress – these are all normal, but the devil’s in the details, as I have tried to explain – look across the channel, or go to wikipedia and type in ‘Thatcher’ and see what you get.

So 53%-47% was the divide. Sarkozy got 6.2% more votes than Royal (amongst the 84% who voted). Roughly, for every 11 people who voted in his favour, 10 voted against, and 4 abstained. Tough logic.

Sarkozy exploited racial and social divisions in the campaign and inherits a divided country and a divided mandate. Pandering to all sides has left him preaching to a broad and divisive church, and a non secular one at that. As he said last night from the Place de La Concorde: “I want a France where everyone has a chance”…may these words come back to haunt him

I can see the storm clouds gathering from here.

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