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The moves helped calm the jangled nerves of French workers, but raised fresh questions about Sarkozy's methods. The call for tax harmonization is an easy populist win, but higher corporate taxes will likely do nothing to protect French jobs and could end up making the E.U. a whole lot less competitive. "The question isn't halting the departure of lower-skilled jobs to cheaper markets, and Sarkozy should know that," says Marc Touati, chief economist of Natexis Banques Populaires. "The challenge is getting those same companies to reinvest gains made from outsourcing to create new jobs in research, hi-tech and skilled services back home."
It all just reinforces the impression among critics that Sarkozy cares more about publicity than policy. "Politically, it was a smart move," says French political commentator Alain Duhamel. "Preventing job loss through outsourcing will require careful planning and growth co-ordination on a European level. Sarkozy can't wait for that, so he addressed concerns now, as best he could, and reinforced his reputation as someone who inspires confidence."
Yet Sarkozy doesn't always opt for crowd-pleasing policies. As Interior Minister, he made repeated visits to France's banlieues, the disadvantaged, crime-ridden suburban housing projects that ring the country's big cities. On his walkabouts he consulted the mostly minority residents, who welcomed this official recognition from a government they feel too often ignores their concerns. Still, more than once Sarkozy found himself debating angry crowds who felt they were being used as props in his photo opportunities. "People turn in on [an error occurred while processing this directive] themselves when they feel humiliated and unprotected by the state," Sarkozy says. "The kids on the banlieue will stop turning inward in anger when they look up and see that they, too, can be a judge, journalist, prefect or politician."
Sarkozy has championed other controversial proposals. In 2003 he supported the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Religion, France's first official body representing the country's estimated 6 million Muslims; he broke a national taboo by calling for positive discrimination to "jump-start an integration model that has broken down"; and he opposed the controversial law banning Muslim head scarves and other overt religious symbols in French schools. "You can't solve problems and enforce security through repressive measures alone," Sarkozy says. "I believe those who work more should earn more. But I also feel those facing unfair disadvantages and barriers should be helped to break through them until everyone is getting the same chances. I'm more for equity than equality. If that's an ideology, then you can label me with it." Sarkozy will find his political courage tested if he does get the chance to fix France, which continues to suffer from chronically high unemployment, rigid labor laws and falling competition rankings.
Sarkozy seems convinced that his communication skills and political instincts will serve him well in the run-up to the 2007 campaign. But it's almost three years until the presidential election, and that must seem an eternity to one as fond of the media glare as he is. That, of course, is why Chirac insisted that Sarkozy leave the Cabinet to take up the ump post. "Chirac is depriving [Sarkozy] of his government spotlight, betting that without much media exposure at the ump, [his] popularity will dwindle," says one ump official and a former Chirac adviser. Sarkozy doesn't deny the risk, but says he'll stay in the public eye. "There's very little risk you won't be hearing from me," he says. Those who know him are sure he's right. One consultant to many leading conservatives expects him to use the job to snipe at government policy and chip away at any desire Chirac may have to run for a third term. "The problem with Sarkozy is he's a young Chirac," this insider claims. "He has no other program besides getting elected President. Once he's there, shop's closed."
Sarkozy dismisses such criticism. He's unapologetic about his ambition in a culture that often discourages it "Ambition is legitimized when it's fulfilled," he says and takes the Chirac comparisons as a compliment. "To be compared to a man who served two terms as Prime Minister and was elected President twice, I've heard worse," he says with a laugh. Sarkozy says his priority for 2007 is avoid a repeat of the divisions on the right that have led to lost conservative presidencies and parliamentary majorities in the past. He is adamant that if in 2007 "Jacques Chirac is the right's best candidate to win, I will support him." Asked who decides which candidate is best, Sarkozy replies, "The French people." In other words, the campaign has begun.