France: More Talk, Little Action

Is that a bracing wind of political change blowing across France, or just a lot of hot air? With President Jacques Chirac temporarily sidelined, the campaign for President in 2007 has suddenly picked up momentum. Hours after Chirac, 72, was hospitalized on Sept. 2 with what was described as a minor vascular problem, the ambitious Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told a conference of Chirac's ruling UMP party that "nothing and no one" would stop him from seeking the presidency, even though Chirac hasn't said whether he'll seek reelection. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Chirac protégé, also made clear that he's prepared to run. "I don't give speeches, I act," he told delegates at the same party conference.

Not exactly subtle. But France desperately needs a vigorous public debate over who should lead it, and how. Across the border in Germany, voters in a Sept. 18 election appear likely to usher in a new government and, with it, reforms. French voters, by contrast, are stuck with a President who is a spent political force, a center-right government that has repeatedly failed to deliver on its economic promises, and a Socialist-led opposition whose main activity seems to be infighting. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers near 10% and economic growth is an anemic 1.5%. No wonder a late August poll by the TNS Sofres survey group found 80% of French people saying their country was going "in a bad direction."

Alas, there's little reason to hope that substantive relief will arrive soon. Chirac and de Villepin, whom the President named Prime Minister in June, have shown little appetite for bold action. After promising to "modernize" France's big-spending welfare state, de Villepin on Sept. 1 unveiled a relatively modest set of reforms. The most dramatic proposal, a revamping of the tax code that would reduce taxes on France's wealthiest citizens, would not take effect until after the 2007 election. While the government has eased some provisions of the notoriously rigid labor code, it has left in place stringent anti-layoff rules that deter employers from hiring. Nor has it proposed any significant cut in public-sector spending, which consumes about half the national economy. "Nobody wants to touch these things before an election," says Aurore Wanlin, a French political analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform.

That's a shame. But the presidential contenders at least owe voters some straight talk about what's wrong with France and what they would do about it. So far, they've offered precious little.

In truth, most French voters probably don't want to give up their generous labor and social protections. They may hope that younger, more vigorous leadership could restore their country to economic health without painful reforms. But in Germany, Angela Merkel is riding high in the polls even though she has warned voters that they'll be asked to make sacrifices if she's elected Chancellor. In France's stagnant political scene, a little candor could go a long way.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

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