Sinking Sarkozy: Majority in France say he’s failed on pledges
PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s honeymoon with the media didn’t last long.
A year after he was swept to power, Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity ratings have plunged as fast as they had risen. Ambitious projects have remained on the drawing boards. And 55 percent of those who voted for him hope he will not stand again after the end of the present five-year mandate.
Although he is still flamboyant and pledging to change France, something has snapped in his relationship with the electorate, analysts say. Some of his projects now seem unreal, others too costly or unnecessary.
And the general public seemed annoyed by his penchant for luxury and high-profile romantic problems: a divorce and an almost immediate remarriage to Carla Bruni, a guitar-playing singer and former model.
In a gloomy economic climate, the weekly Paris Match estimated that 72 percent of Frenchmen are unhappy with Mr. Sarkozy’s performance and 65 percent feel that he has not fulfilled his campaign promises.
According to a telephone opinion poll ViaVoice, six out of ten voters consider the Sarkozy presidency a failure.
To the daily Le Parisien, with a popularity rating of 36 percent, Mr. Sarkozy is the least popular of seven presidents in office over the past 50 years.
Against such a background, pundits and political scientists are speculating whether France can be reformed, as the president set out to accomplish, and whether it really wants to be reformed.
The concept of a relaxed workplace remains deeply embedded in the country. There is fear of adventurous or innovative projects, and the young increasingly favor guaranteed state jobs with often lavish pensions, which Mr. Sarkozy wants to curtail.
In an exceptionally humble 100minute television broadcast last month, Mr. Sarkozy admitted that he had made mistakes during his first year in office, that he understood the public’s disappointment but that, nevertheless, his program would continue.
“The set has changed slightly, but the show remains exactly the same,” quipped the left-wing Liberation daily.
Olivier Duhamel, a professor of political science, said, “The crux of the matter is purchasing power — the French people’s main expectation. And on this problem, I think that he has failed globally.”
In the weeks before Mr. Sarkozy completed his first year in office, there was a run on two books about his presidency: “The Emperor Has No Clothes” and “It Will End Badly.”
Mr. Sarkozy has been luckier in the field of foreign relations, with several successful trips abroad.
He said that France could rejoin NATO’s military structure, which it left in the 1960s under President Charles de Gaulle, but only if a French general is given a senior command post.
He voiced objection to Turkey’s European Union candidacy but tried to mollify it with a proposal to create a form of “Mediterranean Union” linked with the European Union.
Turkey has rejected the formula as a substitute for its full EU membership.
Perhaps his most significant initiative was to establish closer relations with the United States after several years of mutual sniping.
This plus his admiration for U.S. economic methods and penchant for fast food have earned him the nickname “Sarko the American.”
The ambitious French president also attempted to launch a sort of political-spiritual revival, in which France would become “the soul of new Europe.” Not many of his peers in the European Union were enthusiastic.
Still, some are intrigued by Mr. Sarkozy’s energy, his optimism and relentless ideas.
“Meetings with him are not bad,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying. “He listens, he agrees, and then he turns things around. It’s a challenge.”
Mr. Sarkozy has been more direct — and blunt — in dealing with his aides. He uses strong language, and on one occasion, he described diplomats of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry as “idiots.”
He was elected with a strong majority on a platform of far reaching reforms which, he claimed, France needed.
He was scathingly critical of obsolete institutions — the well-entrenched civil service, the educa- tional system and even hospital administration.
As part of “national reconciliation,” he invited several members of the opposition in his Cabinet, including Bernard Kouchner, a prominent socialist who became foreign minister and helped Mr. Sarkozy to align foreign policy closer with that of the United States.
This significant change has made relatively little impact on the French electorate, which is preoccupied with rising prices and the costs involved in the planned reforms.
Those reforms include labor contracts, tax credits for corporate research, reform of unemployment administration and reduction of special retirement privileges for public-sector workers.
He has not managed to abolish the controversial 35-hour workweek, introduced by the previous socialist administration but has allowed tax breaks on overtime, costing the government nearly $10 billion a year.
His favorite slogan has been “work more to earn more,” but the public has become increasingly skeptical, while the quick and dramatic fall of his popularity has stunned many.
In the coming weeks, the beleaguered French president is facing mass labor union demonstrations against a plan to make people work longer for pensions.
Apart from negative opinion polls, the country’s mood was clearly demonstrated by the March local elections in which his governing Union for a Popular Movement suffered a major setback interpreted as a clear warning to Mr. Sarkozy. Yet the undaunted president has persisted.
“I was elected to rehabilitate work, to give he French back their pride,” he said after the local elections.
Michaelle Jean, governor general of Canada, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy visit the Canadian military cemetery in Beny-Reviers, Normandy, earlier this month during ceremonies to commemorate the 1945 armistice and the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.