Sarkozy: Europe Must Change after Crisis
In a historic speech before a joint session of the French parliament on Monday (22 June), President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the global economic crisis meant that "nothing will be the same any more" and pleaded for change in both France and Europe as a whole.
"The crisis is not over. We don't know when it will end," Mr Sarkozy told the 920 parliamentarians and senators gathered together as the French Congress at the Palace of Versailles, once the home of Louis XIV.
"Thinking of the crisis as brackets that will soon be closed...would be a fatal mistake. Nothing will be the same ever again. A crisis of this magnitude always calls for profound questioning. We cannot witness such a catastrophe without questioning the ideas, the values, the decisions that led to such a result," the president went on.
The French leader, who was the first president to speak before parliament since Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1848, talked about the country's need to modernise its labour market, schools, universities and pension system.
"There would be nothing worse in the current situation, as everything in the world is changing, than to commit a sin by lacking ambition, boldness, imagination," he said.
And while "France is changing," Europe needs a boost as well, the president pointed out.
"Europe must change too. It will not be able to function after the crisis as it did before...Europe must give itself the means to participate in the transformation of the world," he said.
Mr Sarkozy did not enter into details however, simply saying that now was not the right time to speak about "France's European project."
The French model
The president also said he would not take austerity measures or use tax hikes as a way to fight the effects of the financial crisis.
"I will not conduct an austerity policy because austerity policy has always failed," he said.
Mr Sarkozy's comments came just a day after France's budget minister Eric Woerth said the country's budget deficit will exceed seven percent of its GDP in both 2009 and 2010. They also come as both the European Central Bank (ECB) and Germany have been calling for fiscal restraint.
Instead, the French government will take out a new loan from the financial markets or the general public, the president said.
He added that the crisis had highlighted the merits and virtues of "the French model" of the welfare state.
"The recession has brought the French model back into fashion...The French model has its chance once more," he said.
Burka 'not welcome' in France
Mr Sarkozy also used the opportunity to speak strongly against the burka – the garment that some Muslim women wear, covering them from head to toe – but said it was up to the parliament to decide whether to ban it.
"The issue of the burka is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity. The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women," he said.
"I want to say solemnly that the burka will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept in our country women prisoners behind a netting, cut off from any form of social life, deprived of any identity."
The issue is a hot topic in France at the moment, with some parliamentarians already calling for a special enquiry into whether the burka should be banned.
France, home to some five million Muslims and known for its secularism, already banned the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols from public schools in 2004. The move triggered widespread discussion in the country at the time.
'A lot of noise over nothing'
Altogether, Mr Sarkozy's highly anticipated 45-minute speech, while solemn and historic in its essence – it was made possible by a constitutional reform last year that gave the French president the right to appear before parliament for the first time in more than a century – remained general and disappointed those who had expected specific proposals or decisions to be announced.
"We heard principles that were sometimes right, statements that were often general," but in the end there was "nothing concrete," former socialist leader Francois Hollande said on LCI television.
It was "a lot of noise over nothing," he added.
Meanwhile, several opposition MPs have pointed out that while Mr Sarkozy spoke about the effects of the economic crisis, the cost of organising the Congress in the Versailles Palace is expected to be between €400,000 and €600,000.
"[Paying] €500,000 to hear what we just heard, I think that is very expensive," said Socialist MP Jerome Cahuzac.
Some 50 Green and Communist parliamentarians boycotted the speech, while the Socialists attended but boycotted the debate that followed.