Au Revoir Chirac, Bienvenue Sarkozy!


Amin George Forji 



France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, was officially sworn into office Wednesday with a 21-gun salute at a colorful ceremony in the Elysee palace, as the country bid farewell to the outgoing 74-year old ruler, Jacques Chirac, who leaves office after 12 long years. Sarkozy becomes the sixth president of the fifth republic begun by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. He also becomes the first president of France to be born after the Second World War.

In his inaugural speech, the center-right president said the main priorities of his government would be order and authority, national unity, the defeat of intolerance, the empowerment of women as well as new initiatives, or as he put it, “to rehabilitate the values of work, effort, merit and respect.”

“I want to express my conviction that in the service of France there are no camps,” Sarkozy remarked in his firt speech as French president. “We need results because the French people in their daily lives need improvements… We need to invent new solutions,” he said.

“To all those who want to serve their country, I say I am ready to work with them and I will not ask them to deny their convictions…. There is a demand for change. Never has opposition to change been so dangerous for France as in this world in complete change, where each is trying to change faster than the others, where delays can be fatal,” he said.

Sarkozy’s inaugural address, although rich in generalities, was nevertheless deficient in specifics. This should have frustrated demonstrators who have sustained protests in various French cities prior to the inauguration. The angry protesters, many of whom carried placards reading “Sarko fascist!” and “Police everywhere, justice nowhere!” have since turned violent with as many as 80 people seriously injured in clashes with the police, and about 725 cars set on fire. The students and youths consider their new president too populist and far right to rule the country.

Sarkozy who doubles as the president of the ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), has long taken a conservative stance on immigration, modalities for the acquisition of French nationality and issues of law and order. He is generally perceived by critics to be a controversial authoritarian demagogue who would not hesitate to trade away civil liberties for political gains. Many perceive Sarkozy’s hard stance on immigration to be paradoxical, considering that he himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant.

The French far-right nationalist politician, Jean Marie Le Pen even constantly referred to him during the last presidential elections as a “foreigner.”

As expected, he refrained during his inaugural speech from talking on the issue of immigration — considered to be a bone of contention in the French society at the moment. His stance is believed to have softened since the presidential campaign this year. The new leader even sent a message of hope to Africa and the Mediterranean.

“I will fight for the development of Africa because the destiny of Europe and that of Africa are indisputably linked… I will fight for a Mediterranean Union. By turning its back on the Mediterranean, France has turned its back on its past, and on its future.”

Despite the concerns and criticisms, many in France are confident that the new leader is a formidable force. The outgoing president Chirac, who spent four decades in French politics and twelve years as president, has been criticized for not doing enough to curb unemployment, which stands at 8-10 percent, one of the highest rates in Western Europe.

Sarkozy is believed to be the right man at the right time, to revamp the economy, and restore French “grandeur.”

He is expected to announce his government before the end of the week, and French tabloids have already reported on rumors that half of his cabinet would be women. The papers are also speculating that he will name fellow conservative long time minister, Francois Fillon, as his prime minister.

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