Monday, December 17, 2007

The Limits of Pragmatism

The rhythm of the Sarkozy presidency has slowed noticeably in recent weeks, and it is not just a pause for the holidays. Sarkozy's plan was worked out well in advance of his election, and he has executed it essentially as he envisioned. He attacked on all fronts at once: tax reductions, retirement reforms, detaxation of overtime, reform of the universities, reform of the judicial map, European treaty, etc. He weathered opposition from unions, students, judges, and European bankers. He repaired relations with the United States. And now he is waiting to reap the rewards of his supposed audacity.

But the reforms are less audacious than they appear. The end of the special regimes, which is not yet fully negotiated, merely takes the overhaul of the French retirement system one small step further. The process has been under way since Juppé first proposed the blueprints in 1995. Detaxing of overtime is really a less ambitious incentive to employers to increase the supply of work than countless previous incentives targeted at more needy categories of workers such as the young, the long-term unemployed, and the relatively unskilled. The university reforms merely mark the beginning of a long process. The Lisbon Treaty patches up European institutions for the moment but hardly redeems the promise of the original constitutional idea.

So what if the condition of the patient doesn't respond quickly to these mild doses of medicine? Will Sarkozy lose support? In this respect, the municipal elections loom large as a referendum on Sarko's first year, which is precisely the way François Hollande described them this weekend. Sarkozy, he said, will be the candidate of the right in every city in France.

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