French President Nicolas Sarkozy Promises Change France's new conservative president, who worked his way up the ladder in a rise unusual in the country's political history, is offering his people the option of radical change.
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy Promises Change

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy shares a laugh with outgoing President Jacques Chirac on May 10 in Paris. Jean Ayissi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jean Ayissi/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Nicolas Sarkozy's Plans for France

Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a strong stand on certain issues, having campaigned on a platform of domestic, economic and social reform. Even Sarkozy's critics admit he speaks his mind and sticks to his convictions.

Analysts say that he could take action on some of his plans early into his presidency.

Here are some areas that were key in his campaign:

  • Employment: 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. One of Sarkozy's first moves will be to loosen the constraints of the 35-hour-work week, 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. He wants to free up labor markets, and promises to cut taxes and red tape to encourage employment. Opponents worry that he'll attack the French system of welfare and job protection.
  • Immigration: Ironically, the grandson of three immigrants has become controversial for his tough policies on immigration. Sarkozy wants to restrict immigration, deport illegal immigrants, and require that all immigrants speak French. But he also wants to create a new ministry to deal with questions of immigration and nationality — and to give non-citizens the right to vote. And he is the only major French politician in this egalitarian republic to support affirmative action.
  • Foreign Policy: Sarkozy's plans will be clear — and he is expected to bring a different perspective to French foreign policy. "He has a strong sense of freedom and democracy," political analyst Nicole Bacharan, a research fellow at the University of Paris, told NPR. He has stood against the possibility of Turkey entering the EU. In addition, Sarkozy is a strong friend of Israel and will push for the peace process there, Bacharan told NPR.
  • Relations with America: Sarkozy has been an open admirer of the United States and wants to repair France's relationship with the country, but he isn't likely to follow President Bush's lead at all costs, Christian Malard, senior foreign affairs correspondent for France 3 television, told NPR. In a speech after being elected president, he said, "I want to reach out to our American friends. I want to tell them that France will always be on their side when they need her. But I want to say too that friendship also means that people can think differently." Sarkozy always was against the Iraq war, but he didn't agree with the way France reacted to it.
  • Relations with Europe: Sarkozy wants to take a leadership role in the functioning of Europe. He wants to find a way to put together a short institutional treaty, despite the recent rejection of a European constitution, Bacharan told NPR.
  • Crime: Sarkozy wants to see minimum jail sentences for repeat offenders, and he plans to introduce tougher sentences for juveniles.
  • NPR's Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this report.