[Outlook]Vive la France nouvelleLike all the best epic battles, the French presidential election campaign captured the world’s attention.
When the voting was over at 6 p.m. on Sunday, French time, 44.5 million French voters watched the results of exit polls on TV. At 8 sharp, the figures appeared.
With 53.47 percent of the vote, the son of an immigrant in his early 50s was elected as the next president of France.
Segolene Royal, France’s first female presidential candidate, immediately conceded defeat and expressed her support for the new president. Nicolas Sarkozy said that he would become the president of all the French people and reached out his hand to the supporters of his rival.
The defeated candidate who accepts the result, the winner embracing his opponents and voters taking an active role always produce a moving scene in any political drama.
However, Sarkozy is intoxicated by the aesthetics of a procedural democracy so it seems he will have some heavy burdens to carry.
Since France’s fifth republic began in 1958, etatisme, the belief that growth and the fair distribution of wealth can both be achieved through government intervention, has been a central tenet of French society.
Leftists and rightists may have different interpretations, but basically both of these opposing forces have a strong belief in this idea.
From World War II to the late 1970s, France’s economy developed at rapid speed.
The French model seemed to work well. French excellence was established and the country also seemed to exert power in international politics and diplomacy, emphasizing its distinctive culture.
However, after the 1980s, the trend of integrating the economies of the world gained speed, and the French model began to look shaky.
As British- and American-style neo-liberalism spread, it became increasingly clear that an economy based on government intervention would struggle to be competitive. But France still stuck to its own path.
Under the government-led French model, the government accounted for 50 percent of gross domestic product and 40 percent of the country’s employment, making the public sector too big.
The labor market was rigid, as it was difficult to fire workers. Costs for welfare programs became too high. The bureaucracy caused inefficiency and excessive regulation. These created a vicious circle of high unemployment, high costs and slow growth.
France’s per capita gross domestic product used to be one of the world’s top five, but it declined. By 2004 it had slumped to 21st on the list.
Poor people, most of whom are immigrants, were deeply affected, leading to serious social insecurity, which was expressed in riots and a series of race-related disturbances.
Nevertheless, it is true that inequality in French society has narrowed. In 1970, the richest 10 percent had incomes 4.8 times larger than the 10 percent at the bottom.
But the difference was reduced to 3.5 times by 1996 and, in 2003, to 3.2 times. That is very different from the United States, where the gap between the rich and poor keeps increasing.
The presidential election was a very important one in French history because its outcome will decide the destiny of the French model in the midst of globalization, which is hard to resist.
Sarkozy argued that government intervention may create a more equal society but it makes the nation uncompetitive as a whole and curbs growth.
Royal claimed that to give up the French model would damage the identity of France.
But the voters left the future of the country to Sarkozy, the son of an immigrant who is not a graduate of les grandes ecoles, like his opponent.
Some might feel sad that France, which used to call herself the last bastion to resist the neo-liberalism of Britain and the United States, has had to kneel down under the pressure of globalization. However, the voters made a wise decision. They seem to know that small adjustments of the French model would not heal the disease the country is suffering from.
It is sad that one has to break with the past to bring in change and reform. But, in this case, it was an inevitable choice.
It is up to Sarkozy to persuade the 47 percent of voters who did not support him and make them feel included in the changes he plans.
The most urgent task is to secure a strong base of support in the parliamentary general elections next month. The next job is to realize the core French values of liberty, equality and fraternity through growth.
A journey that will be rough by anyone’s standards awaits the good ship Sarkozy.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok