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France Elects a New President

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France Elects a New President

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Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy’s resounding victory in France’s May 6 presidential election signals a turn to the right that some analysts say marks what most likely will be a significant shift in France’s approach to the European Union, the Middle East and North America at a crucial time in world events.

Mr. Sarkozy defeated Socialist Sègoléne Royal by about 53% to 47% in a controversial election that drew an 85% French voter turnout, the highest in 26 years.

Mr. Sarkozy was described by the International Herald Tribune as “one of the most polarizing figures to move into Élysèe Palace in the postwar era. He is a whirling dervish of ideas who inspires hope and fear on both sides of the French political scene. Even many members of his own party, the Union for a Popular Movement, are holding their breath in anticipation of what his presidency might bring…He is also a bit of an outsider; the first son of an immigrant to rise to the French presidency in a country struggling to integrate second-generation immigrants; the grandson of a Sephardic Jew who converted to Catholicism in a country in which anti-Semitism was still not uncommon.”

Immediately following the election, hundreds of left-wing youth clashed with riot police in the streets of Paris, Lyon and other French cities to protest Mr. Sarkozy’s victory.

Some critics have blamed Mr. Sarkozy for prolonging the violence during the November 2005 riots in which predominantly Muslim young people ransacked stores and firebombed cars near Paris. Referring to the rioters as “scum,” Mr. Sarkozy said the area needed to be “cleaned out with a power hose.”

Despite sharp criticism of his tough rhetoric, he never backed down nor expressed regret for his comments.

“That abrasive style raised doubts over whether Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian refugee, could truly unite the increasingly diverse and polarized nation,” the Associated Press reported. “Sarkozy pledged in his victory speech to be president ‘of all the French, without exception.’ But that task will not be easy. The 52-year-old former interior minister inherits a nation losing faith in itself, paralyzed by worries over globalization, bitter at American dominance and saddled with social tensions.”

Mr. Sarkozy has been compared to Napoleon because of his short stature, and has been said to bear a striking resemblance to French King Louis XIV.

Mr. Sarkozy declared in his victory speech that “France is back in Europe.” In fact, “European leaders congratulated Nicolas Sarkozy on his victory in France’s presidential election on Sunday and hoped his triumph would help unblock reforms stalled by the rejection of the EU constitution in 2005,” Reuters reported.

“Sarkozy’s election could help restart the process of finding a way forward on reviving the European Union constitution, which has been held up as Europe awaited the results of the French election…European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he was confident Sarkozy would help find a way out of the impasse that has gripped Europe since French and Dutch voters threw out the constitution in referendums two years ago.”

Mr. Barroso said he is confident Mr. Sarkozy will play a “driving role in … consolidating a political Europe.”

To expedite enacting a European constitution, “Sarkozy has proposed a slimmed-down ‘mini treaty’ containing basic institutional reforms that would allow the EU to function properly after its expansion to 27 members. To avoid the need for a second referendum in France, he wants to pass the mini treaty through parliament.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s election has rekindled hopes that France will unite with Germany to propel European unification down a fast track. The fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, like her French counterpart, is a conservative leader encourages supporters who desire that a traditionally strong Franco-German alliance will continue.

“She is sure that under the new president, the proven German-French friendship will continue to be the foundation for ensuring peace, democracy and well-being in Europe,” Ms. Merkel’s office stated. “Particularly as Europe is in such a decisive phase, it is important to continue the close, trustful and intensive cooperation between Germany and France.”

A Catholic of Jewish descent, Mr. Sarkozy strongly opposes admitting Turkey into the European Union and has distanced himself from the strident pro-Arab policies of his predecessor, French President Jacques Chirac.

Writing for the Jerusalem Post, columnist Stephanie Levy observed, “The twelve-year-long Chirac era has been characterized by a close friendship with Arab regimes, including radical ones, and enmity toward the United States…Regarding Israel, Sarkozy has promised a more balanced French policy. Last March, he asserted that French decision-makers should be able ‘to say a certain number of truths to our Arab friends, for example, the right for Israel to exist and to live safely is not negotiable, and that terrorism is their true enemy’…By pointing out the responsibility of Islamist groups in the violent riots that occurred in France during the fall of 2005, and by focusing his political program on a stricter French immigration policy, Sarkozy has alienated a significant number of French Muslims. Moreover, because he is seen as pro-American, he is viewed with mistrust by most of them.”

While Mr. Sarkozy has been viewed as more pro-American than Mr. Chirac, the Bush administration “should not expect Sarkozy to become ‘an American poodle,’ as the new president’s detractors have claimed,” quoted author Kenneth Timmerman.

“In an appearance on the Charlie Rose show in February, his only televised interview in the United States during the campaign, Sarkozy appeared to adopt Chirac’s notion of a ‘multipolar’ world. ‘We can’t have a world that’s led by one or two superpowers,’ he said.

Then he offered a little Gallic advice. “‘This is a problem in the U.S., and I want to say this to my American friends: The world does not come to a halt at the borders of your country. Beyond the Pacific and beyond the Atlantic, there are men and women like you. Get interested in the world and the world will learn to love you. The world is not just the American empire. There’s more to it than that.’”

John Lichfield, a writer for The Independent, a British newspaper, also noted that Mr. Sarkozy “would push for a protectionist European trade and immigration policy.”

The changing of the guard in France comes as the United States, United Kingdom and Israel also face impending changes in top leadership and the European Union becomes a much stronger political, economic and military force.

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