France | Nicolas Sarkozy Spearheads Effort to Improve U.S.–France Relations
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Nicolas Sarkozy Spearheads Effort to Improve U.S.–France Relations
Sarkozy immediately extended an olive branch to the United States, saying "I want to tell them [Americans] that France will always be by their side when they need her, but that friendship is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently." The dialogue signalled a marked shift from the tense French-American relationship under Chirac.
On his first day in office, Sarkozy named former social affairs minister François Fillon as prime minister, replacing Dominique de Villepin. He also appointed Socialist Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières, as foreign minister. Workers in the public sector staged a 24-hour strike in October to protest Sarkozy's plan to change their generous retirement packages that allow workers to retire at age 50 with a full pension. Strikers relented after nine days and agreed to negotiate.
In July, Sarkozy launched the Union for the Mediterranean—an international body of 43 member nations. The union seeks to end conflict in the Middle East by addressing regional unrest and immigration.
On July 21, 2008, Sarkozy won a narrow victory (539 to 357 votes—one vote more than the required three-fifths majority) for constitutional changes that strengthen parliamentary power, limit the presidency to two five-year terms, and end the president's right of collective pardon. The changes, approved in July, also allow the president to address Parliament for the first time since 1875. The Socialist opposition asserted that the changes actually boost the power of the presidency, making France a "monocracy."
The French Parliament approved a bill in July 2008 that ends the 35-hour work week and tightens criteria for strikes and unemployment payments. The new bill is intended to decrease unemployment and allow businesses and employees to negotiate directly about working hours.
In November 2008, the Socialist party voted for a new leader, revealing a deeply divided member body. Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, defeated former party leader Segolene Royal by only 42 votes. Over 40 percent of Socialist party members declined to vote and internal disputes ensued.
Five sticks of dynamite were planted in a Parisian Printemps on December 15, 2008, by a previously unknown group called the Afghan Revolutionary Front, which demanded the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and warned of another strike if Sarkozy did not remove the troops.