Sarkozy Dazzles, But Can He Deliver?

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Stephane De Sakutin / AFP / Getty

French President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses the summer congress of the MEDEF employers' federation on August 30, 2007.

Such is the razzle-dazzle of French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he is able to turn a speech to business leaders on such staid topics as labor contracts, taxation, inflation and purchasing power into some truly captivating theatrics. During a nearly 45-minute address billed as the blueprint of the second phase of Sarkozy's economic reforms, the gesticulating, sardonic, often dramatic President drew applause, laughter and even a gasp or two of excitement as he described how he intends to make France a more competitive economy.

"If France has lower growth than other [nations)], it's because we work less," scolded Sarkozy, who promised to further roll back the nation's 35 hour work week — an institution he denounced as an "immense economic mistake" in keeping with the economically sedative labor policies of the left. Sarkozy's Thursday address to France's main employers' organization, Medef, was a tour de force fusing policy objectives with performance art, with Sarko alternately playing stand-up comic and revival-meeting preacher. Playing to a friendly crowd, Sarkozy vowed to further lower taxes, reduce companies' salary-linked labor costs, cut thousands of jobs from the civil service, legalize Sunday trading, generally liberalize France's labor market and adopt a small business act using the American law as his model.

But if these measures would obviously please the assembled business leaders, Sarkozy made it clear he also expected effort from them in return. Increased productivity anticipated by limbering up the work week should bring salary increases in order to boost French purchasing power. "Ever since the introduction of the 35-hour week, we've heard discussion about purchasing power, not about salaries," Sarkozy said — rebuffing the business leaders' frequent retort that purchasing power is mostly an old union chestnut to justify demands for pay hikes. "Explaining there's no problem of purchasing power in France is trying to pull the public's leg... I expect you to negotiate on salaries."

Sarkozy also demonstrated his crowd-pleasing flair in tapping Jacques Attali, a leftist intellectual and erstwhile adviser to former Socialist President Franšois Mitterrand, to head an elite panel on ways to unshackle the economy. Attali's appointment continues Sarkozy's habit of "opening" government to leading figures from the opposition. "When you get down to it, maybe be I'm the person who knows how to exploit the talents of the Socialist Party best," he said sardonically. "They have very good people, and ones they hardly use at all. Maybe during another incarnation I was a director of human resources."

Not everyone was won over by the Sarko Show, nor the policies it sought to introduce. Socialist Party economic expert and former Economy and Finance Minister Michel Sapin described the speech as big on generalities but short on detail. "This speech lacked everything we were waiting: for concrete and specific answers to the grave problems of the French economy," Sapin told French television. Like other critics of Sarkozy's performance, Sapin noted the nearly $15 billion in tax cuts already passed by the President has further bloated France's staggering public debt without finding new revenues to offset the cost. Meanwhile, faltering economic performance threatens to shrink France's annual growth even smaller than the the government's modest 2.25% estimate for the year.

Though few observers will contest Sarkozy's success in unveiling his economic package with the flair of a true showman, Sapin warned that pizzazz is no longer a substitute for results. "It's no longer the time for declarations, affirmations, or slogans," Sapin said, suggesting Sarkozy is having difficulty shifting from his stellar but accountability-free campaign form to the business of governing. "It's time for action, efficiency, concrete results."