As French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy cracked down so hard on drunk driving that thousands of his countrymen quit drinking wine in restaurants if they intended to get behind the wheel afterward. Now, as Finance Minister, he wants to weaken a popular law capping the workweek at 35 hours, while making the French pay more for health care that's now mostly free. In April, as Franco-U.S. tensions flared anew over Iraq, Sarkozy gave a speech saying he was "proud" when critics called him more American than French. "There are many good lessons that we must learn from America," he said.
Is this man trying to commit political suicide? Far from it. Sarkozy, 49, is France's most popular politician, and looks more and more like the man to beat in the 2007 Presidential election. In a center-right government that has been slow to deliver on promises, Sarkozy stands out for fast action, from putting more policemen on the streets to crafting a plan to save French engineering company Alstom from bankruptcy. "He's the only person able to make things move in France today," says Nicolas Baverez, author of the best-seller France in Decline.
"Sarko," as he's widely known, is a new breed of French politician. Dynamic and unabashedly ambitious, he puts pragmatism ahead of ideology, taking his case directly to the public. Sarkozy's ascent is all the more remarkable because President Jacques Chirac has tried to block his path. The two have had a chilly relationship since 1995, when Sarkozy backed then-Prime Minister Eduard Balladur in his unsuccessful Presidential race against Chirac. Indeed, when Chirac named Sarkozy Interior Minister after the 2002 Presidential election, many insiders figured it was a wily move to sideline Sarkozy by saddling him with seemingly intractable problems such as illegal immigration. Instead, Sarkozy spun gold from the job. His approval ratings soared as he closed a refugee center seen as a magnet for illegal immigrants and cut highway death rates with tougher enforcement of drunk-driving and speeding laws. This spring, after the center-right suffered disastrous losses in regional elections, Chirac was forced to shake up his Cabinet and give Sarkozy -- whose 55% approval rating is well above Chirac's paltry 32% -- the more prominent role of Finance Minister.
Once again, Sarkozy has come roaring out of the gates, with an economic-growth package including targeted tax incentives, sharp cuts in government spending, and relaxing the 35-hour workweek law, a Socialist measure the center-right government until now has been reluctant to tamper with. "I will fight on all fronts," he promised at a May 4 press conference. "There is no reason to resign ourselves to weak growth."
Despite his free-market rhetoric, Sarkozy still favors a bit of dirigisme. His plan to save Alstom calls for the government to take a bigger stake in the company. Even so, business leaders say he's refreshingly different. "He believes that politics can change things," says Bruno Van Ryb, a high-tech entrepreneur who heads MiddleNext, an association of midsize public French companies.
A son of Hungarian immigrants who was elected to a local city council while still in law school, Sarkozy enjoys rolling up his sleeves and shaking hands with voters -- unlike some of France's more stuffy pols. There's mounting sentiment within Chirac's UMP party that Sarkozy should replace party chief Alain Juppé, who will step down this fall. That would be a perfect launching pad for a Presidential campaign -- and the energetic Sarkozy has already made clear that he's eager to take his unorthodox politics to the next level.