No Easy Start for France's New President

Nicolas Sarkozy takes office as the 23rd President of France. The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a French mother of Greek-Jewish origin, he was an outsider who had to fight his way to the top.

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(Soundbite of song "La Marseillaise")

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the day that Nicolas Sarkozy became the 23rd president of France. As the military band played the French national anthem, he took over from outgoing president Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy is the first French president born after World War II. He's 52 years old. He says he wants to remake France by instituting drastic economic and social reforms. And we have more this morning from Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Nicolas Sarkozy gave his first political speech at the age of 20. The longhaired, bell-bottomed youth leader of his party was allotted two minutes. He took 10, impressing party chairman and Paris mayor Jacques Chirac with his oratory style and chutzpah. Sarkozy's biographer, Catherine Nay, says he had his eye on the French presidency from that moment, but Sarkozy came to power the hard way.

Ms. CATHERINE NAY (Journalist, Europe No. 1): (Through translator) Nicolas Sarkozy started at the bottom, putting up posters and sweeping the floors. This is absolutely unique in France because our politicians all follow the same path. They go to the elite political school, then they're appointed to a minister's staff and they succeed like that. But Nicolas Sarkozy fought his way up the ladder, rung by rung, for the past 32 years.

BEARDSLEY: Work, the cardinal value of Sarkozy's life, became the central pillar of his presidential platform. On the campaign trail, Sarkozy claimed to be the candidate of those who rise early to go to work and said he would restore the value of hard work in France.

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President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: One of Sarkozy's first moves will be to loosen the constraints of the 35-hour workweek, which he calls a monumental error. He won't repeal the law, but he wants to encourage people to work longer and earn more, leaving overtime untaxed to encourage spending. At the age of 28, Sarkozy beat a seasoned politician in an affluent Paris suburb to become the youngest mayor in France.

The ambitious, energetic lawyer was later elected to Congress and became a nationally known figure and a regular face on the political talk show circuit.

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: 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.

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Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy took a tough line and referred to young troublemakers as scum. But Jose Freche(ph), a writer and personal friend of Sarkozy's, says his public image is quite different from the real man.

Mr. JOSE FRECHE (Author): Personally, he is a very nice guy and also very funny. When he decided something, he goes after the objective, very tough. But also he is somebody who liked to discuss with the people and to listen to all the people.

BEARDSLEY: Nicolas 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 emigre from Greece. Sarkozy's father left the family when he was five, an event biographer Catherine Nay says deeply scarred him.

Ms. NAY: (Through translator) To be the son of an immigrant and a divorcee when divorce wasn't common, was difficult, and then to discover his grandfather's Jewish roots. All this gave him a feeling of being a minority, but it also angered him in his convictions and made him a fighter. He feels things deeply and in some way has hungered for success to prove that he is no longer an outsider.

BEARDSLEY: Ironically, the grandson of three immigrants has become controversial for his policies on immigration. Sarkozy wants to restrict immigration and require that all immigrants speak French.

But he also wants to give non-citizens the right to vote and he is the only major French politician in this egalitarian republic to support affirmative action. Even Sarkozy's critics admit he speaks his mind and sticks to his convictions.

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BEARDSLEY: Minutes after winning the election, Sarkozy spelled out his vision for France.

President SARKOZY: (Through translator) The French people have expressed themselves and they chose to break with the ideas, habits, and behavior of the past. 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.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy supporters say he is the only man with the courage and stamina to reform France. Sarkozy says he'll govern in the name of all and has promised to surprise the French people. One editorialist writing about the new president told his readers, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be quite a ride.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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