Sarkozy's New Year message, 'new frontier' or 'smokescreen'?

9th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Sarkozy's first major press conference was hailed by supporters as charting a "new frontier"

   PARIS, January 9, 2008 - Nicolas Sarkozy's first major press conference
was hailed by supporters Wednesday as charting a "new frontier" for his
presidency, but critics accused him of dodging the big question: how to fix
the economy.
   Sarkozy's celebrity romance with the former model Carla Bruni -- which he
confirmed on Tuesday was "serious" -- hijacked the media spotlight in recent
weeks, denting his poll ratings and leaving him accused of neglecting voters'
day-to-day concerns.
   On Tuesday, a combative Sarkozy, 52, wrenched the focus back onto politics,
causing a sensation by saying he wanted to end the 35-hour working week in
2008 and overhaul French public broadcasting, scrapping advertising and
replacing it in party with a new tax on Internet access.
   Among a raft of new policy pledges -- on schools, hospitals, immigration --
Sarkozy said two Nobel economists would work on a new happiness index to be
factored into French growth data, and that racial and male-female equality
would be written into the constitution.
   Taken together, he said, these steps would form part of a new "policy of
civilisation", addressing core societal issues such as bio-ethics, the
"morality" of capitalism, and the quality of life.
   Sarkozy's supporters judged him to have scored points with an inspirational
message and energetic performance.
   "After two hours of forceful dialogue with journalists, the president had
charted the 'new frontier of Sarkozy-ism'," wrote the pro-government Le
Figaro, which said Sarkozy was seizing back the initiative, well aware that
"his honeymoon is definitively over."
   "I am happy the president decided to put some meaning back into politics,
that he has given the French people rules and reference points for the year to
come," said Yves Jego, spokesman for Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party.
   But critics dismissed Sarkozy's "civilisation" concept as a gimmick,
designed to steer debate away from the prickly issues of economic growth and
the cost of living -- both central themes in his campaign.
   Socialist deputy Marie-Noelle Lienemann accused him of "setting up a
smokescreen around the French with hollow speeches on civilisation".
   "Faced with the tough realities, he is looking for a way out," charged the
Socialists' economics guru Michel Sapin, charging that Sarkozy had
"squandered" 15 billion euros (22 billion dollars) on a tax cut packge last
July without boosting purchasing power.
   "For six months, we were in a film called 'Restoring the value of work'...
the medicine is not working... so we are now being lifted to new philosophical
heights," wrote the left-wing Liberation newspaper.
   Elected on a promise to bring in sweeping reforms, the president is accused
of failing to rev up the economy, with projections showing growth will remain
sluggish in 2008.
   Recent polls have shown him slipping three to four points, while one showed
a seven-point plunge in his rating to 48 percent -- the lowest since his
election in May.
   Photos of Sarkozy and Bruni on holiday in Egypt and Jordan fueled charges
that he was holidaying while the French at home were struggling.
   Defending his reform agenda, Sarkozy nevertheless suggested he had little
leverage and that state finances were already stretched to the maximum.
   "Concerning purchasing power, what do you expect from me?" he said. "That I
empty coffers that are already empty?
   Sarkozy's flagship measure to boost purchasing power has been the
introduction of tax-free overtime pay -- followed by a measure allowing
workers to sell back holidays earned under the 35-hour scheme.
   Both are seen as an attempt to circumvent the 35-hour week, but Tuesday was
Sarkozy's clearest statement yet that he wants to end the measure, which polls
show still enjoys public support.
   His comments sparked an uproar from unions and the political left, with the
Socialists' leader in parliament Jean-Marc Ayrault warning they would "fight
without concession" against any attempt to repeal the law.

AFP Emma Charlton

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