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French President Nicolas Sarkozy Promises Change

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy shares a laugh with outgoing President Jacques Chirac on May 10 in Paris.
Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy shares a laugh with outgoing President Jacques Chirac on May 10 in Paris.
Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images
Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy became the new president of France on May 16, when he took over for Jacques Chirac.

Although he is a conservative, Sarkozy offers French citizens the option of radical change. Sarkozy, who is pro-American, has said France needs to get back to work to solve its economic woes. The 52-year-old is head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

Sarkozy came to power the hard way, said his biographer Catherine Nay. He gave his first political speech at the age of 20. The long-haired, bell-bottomed youth leader of his party was allotted two minutes for the speech. He took 10, impressing party chairman and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac.

And while he had his sights set on the French presidency from that moment, he worked his way up the ladder over 32 years by first sweeping floors and putting up posters. Most politicians in France attend an elite political school, later joining a minister's staff, Nay said.

At the age of 28, Sarkozy beat a seasoned politician in an affluent Paris suburb to become the youngest mayor in France. The young, energetic lawyer was later elected to Congress and became a nationally known figure and a regular face on the political talk-show circuit.

Although Sarkozy and President Jacques Chirac had a difficult relationship, Chirac was forced to bring Sarkozy into his cabinet as interior minister in 2002. Since then, Sarkozy has been unstoppable, dominating the media and often stealing the spotlight from the president.

In 2005, riots broke out in poor, immigrant suburbs across the country. Sarkozy took a tough line, referring to young troublemakers as scum.

But Jose Freche, a writer and personal friend of Sarkozy, says his public image is quite different from the real man.

"Personally, he's a very nice guy and also very funny," Freche said. "When he decides something, he goes until the objective. Very tough. But also he's somebody who likes to discuss with people and to listen to other people."

Sarkozy was born in Paris in 1955, the son of a minor Hungarian aristocrat who fled communism after World War II. His mother was the daughter of a Jewish émigré from Greece. Sarkozy's father left the family when he was 5, an event Nay said deeply scarred him.

"He feels things deeply and, in some ways, has hungered for success to prove that he is no longer an outsider," Nay said.

Sarkozy won a run-off election May 6 by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent in a battle with socialist Segolene Royal. Twelve candidates were on the ballot for the initial round of voting April 22.

Sarkozy won the election on a platform of economic and social reform.

Sarkozy promised to put people back to work and to jump-start the French economy, Europe's third-largest. He also said he'll sweep away what he calls the values of the 1968 student revolution that he says have degraded France.

"The French people have expressed themselves, and they chose to break with the ideas, habits and behaviors of the past," Sarkozy said. "I will rehabilitate work, authority, morals, respect and merit. I will put the nation and national identity first and give the French people a reason to be proud."

Sarkozy's supporters say he is the only man with the courage and stamina to reform France. But many see Sarkozy as an authoritarian and divisive figure who could aggravate the country's social divide.

Reported by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in France.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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