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French President-elect Looks to Improve U.S. Relations

May 7, 2007 at 6:15 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, French voters chose a new president, who promised change at home and abroad. In his victory speech last night, Nicolas Sarkozy talked of how he would repair recently frayed relations with the United States.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, President-Elect, France (through translator): I want to issue an appeal to our American friends to tell them that they can count on our friendship, which has been forged in the tragedies of history, which we have faced together.

I want to tell them that France will always be by their side when they need it. But I also want to tell them that friendship means accepting that your friends may think differently and that a great nation such as the United States has a duty not to put obstacles in the way of the fight against global warming.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, continuing her coverage of the French elections, was at Sarkozy’s rally last night. I spoke with her this afternoon from Paris.

Margaret, it’s good to see you again. Nicolas Sarkozy sounded last night like he was extending an olive branch with one hand and a warning to the United States with another. What did it sound like in the room?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, in the room and also among French officials and American officials here in Paris, it was actually very much welcomed.

That is that France and the United States, while they’ve cooperated actually a great deal on terrorism, on Iran, on Afghanistan, it has not been a warm relationship ever since the rupture that occurred over the onset of the Iraq war, when France not only opposed the United States in the U.N., but tried to organize other countries to vote against the war resolution.

So both American and French officials have used the same phrase, which is “a page will be turned.” And the view is that Sarkozy is not going to roll over for the United States, but he is saying that he wants a new kind of relationship in which the United States and France together try to approach some thorny problems and try to come up with common policies, rather than, really, what’s the case now, in which each country decides on its own national interests, and then they try to square the circle.

So it was really notable that, in such a short acceptance speech, that he, in fact, talked about the United States in the way he did.

A "child of Europe"

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
He is very much committed to renewing the E.U. integration process that really ran on the rocks, when the French voters rejected the E.U. constitution in 2005.

GWEN IFILL: So is the president-elect also trying to turn the page, perhaps, of other nations, not just the United States?

MARGARET WARNER: He did say, you know, "I'm a Europeanist. I've always been a child of Europe." And, in fact, he really is a child of Europe.

It's worth noting that three of his four grandparents weren't even French. They're all immigrants. And so he is very much committed to renewing the E.U. integration process that really ran on the rocks, when the French voters rejected the E.U. constitution in 2005.

And that's been a concern to the United States, too, because France has been sort of absent from the E.U. table, and the E.U. has been drifting ever since.

So his people and, in fact, Angela Merkel of Germany's group have already been talking privately about, in June, reviving a -- it was called a mini-treaty, now it's being called a simplified treaty, something that could do a few of the things that the new constitution wanted to, like an E.U. president, an E.U. prime minister, changing the voting rules, but simplified enough that it was a treaty, would not have to go to the voters, but simply be ratified by parliament.

GWEN IFILL: Now let's go back and look at the election. Your reporting has introduced us to so much about France in the last two weeks, but also to Segolene Royal, who was so soundly defeated in the outcome. What happened? Who voted for whom and why?

MARGARET WARNER: I think, Gwen, that what was great about this campaign is that people knew what it was about. It really was about whether they were ready to do what Sarkozy said France needed to do to join the global economy in a more robust way or whether they so loved the way of life that France has that it was reluctant to do so. And, resoundingly, 53 percent to 47 percent, the French voters said that.

If you look at the exit polls, Sarkozy did not win every age group. Tellingly, he won the 25- to 35-year-olds, the young people who are trying to get into the workforce, who know it's a global economy. We met many of those young people last night along the Champs-Elysees, as we walked down to the celebration. And they are really impatient for him to produce.

He only broke even in the 35 to 45, and he actually lost what we call the baby boomers here, they call the '68 generation, the 45 to 60s, and then he won if you're over 60.

But the Sarkozy people think it's important that he did very well among all the different occupation groups, so not only business managers, not only wealthy people, he also got somewhere between 45 percent and 48 percent of people who are just workers.

He did very, very well with what are called artisan here, small business people, plumbers, electricians, masons, people who have been killed by the 35-hour workweek and all the extra taxes.

So the Sarkozy people believe they not only have a mandate for change; they have a challenge to make change. And they're taking this election as a sign of that.

Sarkozy won the women voters

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
He has to win the legislative elections to take place in two rounds in June. And without a really resounding win in those, he could be forced into some kind of an awkward partnership with the left in parliament.

GWEN IFILL: He also won women voters, actually, considering the fact he was running against a very high-profile woman.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, he did. He won women. At least the exit polls show he won 52 percent of the women, 54 percent of the men. So it was pretty much even.

In the end, she played the women card a little more, and the French were actually very excited that here was this groundbreaking event, that a woman had a serious shot at the presidency. But in all the polling, what seemed to have happened is a majority of voters thought, one, she just wasn't really ready, and, two, they really voted for his brand of change.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the mood today? Is it rejoicing? Is it rioting? What is it?

MARGARET WARNER: The mood today is -- it's jubilant, but also somber, and in the sense that the French are very proud, once again, they had 85 percent turnout. They still talk about the fact that ultra-rightists, you know, Jean-Marie Le Pen was resoundingly defeated. A couple of people said to me, "You know, at least now the world knows we're just not extremists here."

And they're excited at the prospect of change. But they are very somber about the prospects, as well.

As you may know, Sarkozy now still has another month of tough sledding ahead. He has to win the legislative elections to take place in two rounds in June. And without a really resounding win in those, he could be forced into some kind of an awkward partnership with the left in parliament.

And it's amazing to me how sophisticated the French voters are. They fully understand that and will talk to you about it on the street. So expectation, yes, but kind of a sober assessment or understanding of how hard it's going to be.

Quick transition to the presidency

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
Unlike the United States, where after someone wins there's these months of searching for just the right people and just the right jobs, here, it's going to happen pretty rapidly.

GWEN IFILL: The transition is so different in France than it is here, where we then go through months of transition and cabinet selection, whereas he effectively takes over fairly soon, doesn't he?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, next Wednesday. It's very, very fast. He has gone off now to a retreat of some sort, though there are some who say he's actually just in Corsica on vacation. But whatever he's doing, he is alone or with just maybe family.

His advisers may join him later, as the thought was, according to his people, essentially he would leave Paris as a politician and return as a president. He'll come back early next week. He'll announce a new cabinet. It's not known who is going to have what job, but the team operated in a very cohesive way during the campaign.

So you're right. Unlike the United States, where after someone wins there's these months of searching for just the right people and just the right jobs, here, it's going to happen pretty rapidly.

But, again, he then has to win the legislative elections. Then he has to represent a new cabinet.

One interesting thing, Gwen. He has said he is going to have a streamline cabinet of 15 and that half, nearly half, seven are going to be women. So someone said to me last night, "There are going to be a lot of disappointed men in his party who aren't going to get the cabinet posts they wanted."

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, your reports have been terrific. Thanks so much for joining us again.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: News organizations reported later this afternoon that Mr. Sarkozy and his family traveled to the Mediterranean island of Malta after his election victory.