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Elections & Voting Last Updated: Apr 11th, 2007 - 02:36:19

The French presidential election -- Part 3 of 3: Policy proposals
By Jeffrey S. Victor, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 10, 2007, 01:19

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France and the United States have many similar social problems, such as massive illegal immigration, poverty and youth violence in urban areas, and declining levels of educational achievement. Are French politicians able to offer some new ideas to solve the social problems that we share?

The number one political issue in the weeks before the first ballot on April 22 is the interrelated problem of France�s large and alienated ethnic minority population and the flood of illegal immigration. In the United States, the problem caused by the flood of illegal immigrants is also a difficult issue. But, in France the problem is much more acute. In the United States, illegal immigrants are mostly Catholic and Hispanic in origin; and as such quite similar to millions of American citizens who have the same religion and ethnic origin.

However, in France, there is a very large ethnic minority population, and a sizable illegal population, whose religion is Moslem and whose culture is North African Arab, or Moslem from Black Africa. (Eight to ten percent of the French population is now Moslem.) This population differs greatly from that of French people from whatever European origin, most of whom are very secular and nonreligious. Many French people, like Americans, have diverse European immigrant roots. Nicholas Sarkozy, the center-right presidential candidate, for example, had a father who emigrated from Hungary. So, the problem in France is one of national identity, much more than it is in the United States.

Sarkozy�s proposal for dealing with the problem of illegal immigration is to establish a national �department of immigration and national identity� in the government. He promises to crackdown on illegal immigration and send all illegal immigrants back to their countries. He asserts that immigrants should be able to speak French and respect the �secular� culture of France. (Surveys show that 55 to 65 percent of French people agree with Sarkozy on this issue.) Needless to say, he is very unpopular in ethnic minority communities, which are concentrated in the poor suburbs of large cities. But, these communities tend to vote Socialist anyhow.

The Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, has made very few concrete proposals to deal with illegal immigration. Instead, in an effort to show that leftists can also be patriotic, Royal recommends that people fly the tricolor flag of France from their windows and says that all French people should know the words of the French national anthem, �The Marseillaise.� Politically, this is her attempt to reinforce the idea that Sarkozy is a �racist,� who discriminates against the ethnic minority population.

The social problems of youth unemployment and youth violence in the poor suburbs are closely connected with the problem of the ethnic minorities, who live in the public housing projects in those suburbs. In the United States, a similar alienated and poor ethnic minority is that of black youth in urban neighborhoods. But, the problem is largely ignored by the mass media, because poor black young people in drug gangs kill mainly other black young people. In contrast, in France, poor teenagers express their anger, on occasion, by coming �downtown,� beating up teenagers from prosperous neighborhoods, smashing store windows and burning expensive cars. (Fortunately, in France, actually killing people is relatively uncommon.)

Sarkozy gained a reputation as a �tough cop,� when he was head of the national police during the suburban youth riots in September of 2006. Sarkozy has pledged to clean up the violent thugs and hoodlums. On the positive side, he also proposes spending about 3 billion euros for the construction of new public housing for poor and working-class people. In order to make more jobs available, he promises to reform France�s rigid labor laws and make more flexible labor contracts between employers and workers. (In France, it is almost impossible to fire salaried workers from the first day they are hired.) He has also proposes giving tax cuts to businesses, so they can hire more people.

Royal says that she will be �firm� against violence of any kind. She pledges to raise the minimum salary by one-third, from 1,000 euros per month to 1,500, and to add a lot of government subsidized jobs. She also proposes to construct a lot more new public housing.

For his part, Fran�ois Bayrou says that the problems of poor youth are basically problems that result from inadequate education (witnessed by the high drop-out rate). So, he promises to improve schools in the poor neighborhoods by spending more money on those schools. He also proposes a national obligation for youth of six months public service, which will provide some job training for poor youth. He promises job creation programs by way of lowering taxes, reducing government spending, a balanced budget, eliminating the national deficit and giving more help to small businesses. This song should sound familiar to American ears. Bayrou has said that �the socialist model doesn�t work� and that he seeks the �third way� of Clinton and Blair.

A major issue in the French election concerns the 35-hour government mandated maximum work-week for salaried workers. This regulation was introduced by the last Socialist government and has caused a lot of controversy, especially among small business and shop owners. Sarkozy promises to �reexamine� the 35-hour maximum work-week. He probably wants to return to the previous 40-hour work-week, if he can manage to do so. In contrast, the Socialist candidate, Royal, will probably keep the 35-hour maximum to maintain the support of salaried workers.

The latest opinion polls, as of Friday, April 6, have different findings depending upon the survey techniques used. This indicates a volatile electorate, with a high percentage of people still undecided. However, in all of them, Sarkozy is in the lead, with Royal second, and Bayrou a close third. In a possible runoff between, Sakozy and Royal, the polls show a close win for �Sarko.�

Regardless of who will become the next president of the Fifth Republic, France is likely to follow a socio-economic path quite different from that of the United States. It will continue to offer economic support for quality-of-life concerns and aid to poor people, greater than any other industrial nation. Therefore, solutions to social problems in France require quite different strategies than in the United States.

Jeffrey Victor is a sociologist who lives in France during the winter months, with his wife who is a French citizen. Responses are welcome at

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