On Sunday, 85 percent of the French electorate went to the polls -- a record number -- and 53 percent of them cast a vote for Nicolas Sarkozy. According to the New York Times' Katrin Bennhold and Elaine Sciolino, the supporters of the "fiery" Mr. Sarkozy went with the message "it's time to reform the economy." Everyone in France and Europe realizes, however, that the economy had nothing to do with Sunday's historic verdict. Mr. Sarkozy won because of his tough rhetoric against the Islamist "thugs" (his word) who aim to rule the country, where over 10 percent of the population already adheres to the Muslim faith.
During the campaign, Segolene Royal, Mr. Sarkozy's Socialist opponent, warned that a Sarkozy victory would lead to violence in the suburbs. Unlike 70 years ago, the French refused to be intimidated into appeasement. "La France profonde" rose to the occasion. French men and women who normally do not vote because they distrust politics turned out en masse to elect "Sarko," the 52-year-old son of a Hungarian immigrant and grandson of a Sephardic Jew.
They may have realized that, because of the demographic growth of the Muslim vote, the 2007 elections were their last chance to make this statement. At a time when French Jews are beginning to flee their native country, the French valiantly chose Mr. Sarkozy, thereby saving the honor of la grande patrie. As expected, the announcement of Mr. Sarkozy's victory was followed by rioting in the suburbs. The election result has made it clear, however, that the French want their new president, who will take office on May 16, to restore law and order.
During the past decades the inhabitants of France have seen their country disintegrate. They have witnessed former blue-collar residential areas degenerate into "no-go" areas, where the police no longer venture and where radical Muslims hold sway. Last year the French authorities published a list of 751 "zones urbaines sensibles" (ZUS, or sensitive urban areas) which are no longer under the control of the authorities. Almost 5 million people, or 8 percent of the French population, live in these ZUS. Mr. Sarkozy promised to reclaim these "lost territories" for the republic.
Whether the new president will be able to live up to his promise remains to be seen, but a majority of the French have given him a mandate to do so. Ironically, they voted "Sarko" in on May 6, the fifth anniversary of the murder of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician who alerted Europe to the danger of an Islamist takeover.
Mr. Sarkozy has the potential to become a great president. If he acts according to his promises, restores the republic's authority over its entire territory and drives the Islamists out -- thereby doing a service to indigenous French and moderate Muslims alike -- he will truly deserve to be called a statesman. There is no doubt that initially more violence will follow. Hopefully, Mr. Sarkozy will not be deterred by this in his endeavor "to clean the suburbs out with a high-pressure hose."
If, on top of that achievement, he is also able to reform the economy by curbing the welfare state and acquainting France with the notion of a minimal state, he will prove to be more than a great statesman -- he will be France's Margaret Thatcher. It is, however, not certain whether in the field of economic reform Mr. Sarkozy will be able, or even willing, to tackle the beast. In a number of interviews, he has indicated that he understands the problem of wealth creation and grasps the causes of France's economic inertia. But during last year's student protests against the youth labor bill, which had been approved by parliament to lower the cost of job creation for French employers, "Sarko" backed down to the demands of rioters who would rather not have a job -- and live at the expense of the state welfare system -- than have a job not guaranteed to be virtually lifelong.
In some of his campaign speeches, too, Mr. Sarkozy embraced the language of the left -- promising to "protect" French workers against "globalization" and "unfair competition" from abroad. Perhaps "Sarko" did this to ensure the backing of as many voters as possible, realizing that, once elected, he will be in a position to break with the bad policies of the past. Indeed, if he has the guts to confront the Islamists he will certainly have the guts to confront the French trade unions and student organizations.
France is offering Europe the best hopes for the future. This situation is an entirely new one in a continent where traditionally Britain has always embodied Europe's hope. In Britain, however, the Blair era is almost over. In the next general elections, Labor will likely be replaced by the Conservatives. David Cameron, the British Conservative Party leader, has shifted his party far to the left, abandoning everything that might remind one of the great Margaret Thatcher. Unlike the French, British voters may not even have a choice between left and right.
This piece was originally published in The Washington Times on May 9, 2007 .