Six months ago Johnny Hallyday, the "French Elvis," announced that he was taking up Swiss citizenship to escape France's high tax rates, which absorbed about two-thirds of his income. Because Hallyday was known to be a supporter of then-candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, a political row immediately burst out. Showing some political courage, Sarkozy did not disavow Hallyday; instead he declared that the singer was quite justified. If he won the election, said Sarkozy, he would cut tax rates to entice France's high earners back home.
That promise was important to many more people than Johnny Hallyday. Something like half a million young French people are estimated to be living in southern England. The Kent Corridor from London to Dover is known, ironically, as "France's Silicon Valley." And for every Parisian exile, 10 actual Parisians still seethe under high taxes and think about emigration. That sums up why Sarkozy won Sunday's election.
Indeed, he did more than simply win an election. By any normal standard Sarkozy has established a clear mandate for sweeping conservative reform in France. He won the presidency by six points in an election that attracted a massive 85 percent turnout. He owed nothing of his victory to other parties or candidates — both the centrist François Bayrou and the ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen refused to support him. He made no secret of the character and extent of his reform program — indeed, as the Hallyday incident demonstrates, he rammed them home with enthusiasm. And it seems likely that he will be granted a friendly National Assembly with a large conservative majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
So, if representative democracy works as it is supposed to do, Sarkozy will push through the market reforms that France has needed for at least two decades. He will deregulate its labor market, slim down the public-sector payroll, abandon the symbolic 35-hour work week, reduce public spending from its current 52 percent of GDP, and reform the French welfare state. Friends and admirers of France will hope that he succeeds. Americans will be especially supportive since he has said that with his election the U.S. has a "friend" — presumably he will end the anti-Americanism that has shaped French foreign policy under Jacques Chirac, his old patron and recent bitter rival. But will Sarkozy be able to push through such an ambitious and contentious program against opposition in the streets as well as in the corridors of power?