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Sarkozy's end-of-term report

By Hugh Schofield

When Nicolas Sarkozy flies south on Monday for his summer holidays, he will find it hard to resist a certain smirk of self-satisfaction. His report card is looking good.

This is how it would read, if the French president were actually - as opposed to occasionally looking like - a teenage schoolboy.

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with supporters
Mr Sarkozy's fondness for the limelight has not endeared him to all

"Started the term badly, his show-off tendencies making him unpopular in class. But he seemed to calm down - apparently under the influence of a girlfriend.

"And the end of year tests showed that his will to achieve remains as strong as ever. Some good results and the promise of more."

Only a few months ago, Mr Sarkozy was being reviled as a celebrity-obsessed power maniac and his opinion ratings were plunging through the floor.

Today, his enemies still loathe him, and the polling figures are nothing to boast about. But his record of reform is beginning to take on real weight: little by little he is fulfilling his pledge to re-shape France.

Consider the following: in the last few days two minor revolutions to the way France runs its affairs were voted through by parliament.

Presidential triumph

On Monday, the combined members of the National Assembly and the Senate approved a revision of the constitution that is supposed to modernise the country's political institutions.

More powers to govern its own business are given to the Assembly (the more powerful lower house), and the president is banned from seeking a third term in office.

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy
Many feel Carla has had a calming effect on Mr Sarkozy

Opponents on the left say Mr Sarkozy's claim to be shifting the balance of power towards the legislature is a sham, and in the event, the reform was voted through by just one vote.

But, by general consensus, it was a presidential triumph.

Mr Sarkozy convinced the die-hard Gaullists within his own ranks. The Socialists - many of whom would in other circumstances have unquestionably voted in favour - instead chose to make it a battle-ground, and they lost.

Two days later, to rather less fanfare, the Senate finally adopted an economy law whose primary measure will lead to the effective end of the 35-hour week.

As everyone knows, the 35-hour week was brought in by the Socialists 10 years ago and has been pilloried by much of the rest of the world as a symbol of France's propensity for self-defeating anti-economics.

Mr Sarkozy hated it as much as the average businessman did, but he faced the awkward fact that a large majority of the French public rather liked the extra days off.

In the end his reform means that 35 hours remains the legal norm in theory, while in practice companies are more or less free to impose - and pay for - longer working periods.

Last day of term

The changes will come in after the summer holidays, when once again the French will discover a country that is slightly different from the one they knew before.

Barak Obama is an immensely popular figure in France, and the handshake is political gold-dust

There are other changes too. The same economy law shifts the balance in the welfare system, so that job-seekers who turn down more than two "reasonable" offers will see their benefits reduced.

From the next academic year, 20 out of the country's 80 universities will have de facto autonomy with the right to manage their own budgets, hire and fire staff, enter sponsorship deals with the private sector, and even charge student fees.

And the military is to go through a major overhaul, with the closure of dozens of bases and new investment in intelligence gathering and rapid foreign intervention. Once again there is much anger in the regions affected - notably along the German border - but general acceptance that it is long overdue.

On top of that the president can boast the successful launch of his Mediterranean Union - much-derided in advance but described by The Economist magazine as containing "the germ of a brilliant idea".

And finally - practically on the last day of term - he has a meeting with the man who could be the next president of the United States.

Barak Obama is an immensely popular figure in France, and the handshake is political gold-dust. Even better - the Socialists, who wanted their own meeting with the Democrat challenger - were told there was not enough time.

There are enormous difficulties ahead for Mr Sarkozy. The economy is underperforming, the public feels poor and disgruntled, and the government's biggest challenge - reducing France's monumental deficits - has yet to be tackled.

But he has built up a solid record of reform, and a momentum that promises more to come.




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