For most of his six months in office, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought to lead by example: using his own relentless pace to inspire French citizens to work longer hours, achieve higher efficiency, and renew their love of labor. The effort is central to Sarkozy's attempt to boost economic growth through a nationwide increase in workforce productivity a goal that requires motivating people to toil beyond the nation's legal 35-hour-workweek limitation, and, as he has put it, "Work more to earn more." But now Sarkozy is applying that slogan to himself with unexpected literalness: he is moving to increase his presidential salary by nearly 150%.
French members of Sarkozy's conservative-dominated parliament passed an amendment to the 2008 budget Tuesday, lifting the president's annual salary from $146,000 to $346,000. The move seeks to clarify the complicated, multi-sourced arrangement under which French Presidents have been paid. Indeed, even as leftist opponents sought to express indignation over the appearance of the rightist legislators sneaking a sweetheart raise to their leader, Sarkozy himself was defiantly unapologetic about the raise or its motives. "I want transparency," Sarkozy declared during a visit in Corsica, referring to the convoluted collection of revenues like advances on paid pensions that have long served to augment French Presidents' modest nominal salary of $12,000 monthly to just what level is anyone's guess."I don't want that anymore. I want the French people to know."
And now they do: Under the new system, Sarkozy and future French heads of state will get roughly the same monthly pay as the nation's prime minister does a monthly, pre-tax pay of around $28,000. Even with that substantial bump, Sarkozy's new remuneration won't be the envy of many of his international peers. The annual salary of U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, is $494,000, versus $384,000 for U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and $391,000 for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sarkozy's official income is also dwarfed by that of European pay champion, Ireland's Bertie Ahern, who pulls in a cool $446,000. Nadine Morano, spokeswoman of Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, argued that the increase was insignificant when viewed in broader terms. "Think about certain soccer players or television personalities," she said. "The raise requested is in no way unusual." Except, of course, that neither of those positions are paid with taxpayer money.
Official statistics show the average 2005 annual salary in France was $28,540 (or $2,378 per month) around 13 times less than Sarkozy's new take. That income level has largely stagnated since 2000, when companies froze salaries to compensate for productivity losses they anticipated from the new 35-hour workweek. With the passage of time and inflation, that has placed a strain on purchasing power a concern listed by voters at the top of many polls. "Just as the French people are worrying about their purchasing power, the government increases presidential payment by 140%," said Socialist Party legislator Aurélie Filippetti before parliament. "Aren't there greater injustices to be addressed?"
Public discomfort over Sarkozy's raise may be accentuated by its timing. In just three weeks, the nation is set to undergo strikes potentially more paralyzing than those in October protesting cutbacks in certain public sector pension regimes. Union leaders have jumped on Sarkozy's pay hike to highlight what they call the President's reformist hypocrisy: clarifying and normalizing governmental pay scales by lifting them, while harmonizing public and private sector pension plans by scaling those downward. "There's a feeling the political class is helping itself while the French people are left on the sidewalk to fend for themselves," lamented Socialist legislator Arnaud Montebourg.
Of course, such comments could be simple opposition politics seeking to exploit an awkward moment for the government. Whether Montebourg's analysis actually finds resonance in public opinion should become clear when polls on the question are published later next week. And then there will be the next important demonstration of French society's enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for Sarkozy's reform agenda: the success of the nationwide strikes on Nov. 20 and the level of public support for them.