France's Sarkozy ends holiday to face sea of troubles

25th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Street protests, political scandal, a faltering economy and fierce criticism over his Gypsy crackdown -- President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a sea of troubles as he returns from his French Riviera holiday.

"He was hoping to regain control of the political agenda with a stance on security, but he did it in such a way that he dug a ditch for himself," said Stephane Rozes of the CAP political consultancy.

That "ditch" is evident in the opinion polls, with a weekend survey showing the right-wing president's approval rating at 34 percent, his lowest score since he came to power in 2007.

Another poll on Wednesday showed IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French Socialist, would beat Sarkozy in a presidential election by 59 to 41 percent, while a further survey said most voters did not want a second Sarkozy mandate.

With two years to go before he seeks re-election, the 55-year-old leader this month tried to regain the political initiative with a populist and racially-tinged law and order message.

He ordered police to step up deportations of Roma from eastern Europe and to dismantle unauthorised Gypsy camps, and he threatened to strip some foreign-born criminals of French citizenship.

But the Roma policy sparked a fierce backlash, drawing fire from the right, the left, the Catholic Church and a United Nations anti-racism panel while also failing to boost him in the polls.

"The public has the feeling that this government is carrying out unjust policies and favours the wealthy," said Frederic Dabi of the IFOP polling agency.

But the president defied his critics Wednesday as he held his first cabinet meeting after the summer break.

"We will not give in to those who systematically seek controversy," he told ministers, according to the government spokesman.

The president has been accused of revamping his hardline stance to try to distract attention from a lingering scandal.

The most politically dangerous allegation in that affair is that L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt illegally bankrolled Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

The man taking most of the flak in the scandal is Labour Minister Eric Woerth, Sarkozy's former party fundraiser, who denied any wrongdoing when questioned by police last month.

The "Bettencourt affair" is the subject of ongoing judicial investigations and the French media continue to dig for more information on Woerth's links to the ageing heiress, who is France's richest woman.

Any hope Sarkozy may have had of keeping the minister's name out of the papers is likely to be dashed by the fact the Woerth is the man in charge of pension reforms.

Unions have promised massive street protests for September 7 to fight the plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a key plank of the reforms which polls say most French believe are necessary if undesirable.

Around 800,000 people protested in June in similar protests.

"The problem for Sarkozy is that this will put Eric Woerth in the foreground and with him the Bettencourt 'affair'," said Philippe Braud, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

Analysts say Sarkozy's high-profile law and order policies are merely a distraction from far more important issues like the economy and employment.

But on those fronts there is little good news for Sarkozy either.

Unemployment remains persistently high and just last week the government cut France's growth forecast for next year to two percent from 2.5 percent.

It also has to find 100 billion euros (127 billion dollars) in savings by 2013 to keep its promise to the EU to slash its deficit.

Analysts see little room for manoeuvre for the president.

He has promised to reshuffle his government in late October to get a new team in place for the run-up to the 2012 election.

"But the (government) team is at the service of a road map. And Sarkozy has problems sticking to road maps," noted Rozes of CAP.

© 2010 AFP

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