Sarkozy still popular as economic woes loom

22nd August 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Aug 22, 2007 (AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy completes his first 100 days in office on Thursday still riding high in opinion polls despite disappointing figures on the economic front as he prepares to rev up reforms.

PARIS, Aug 22, 2007 (AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy completes his first 100 days in office on Thursday still riding high in opinion polls despite disappointing figures on the economic front as he prepares to rev up reforms.

Sarkozy took over the presidency on May 16 after defeating Socialist Segolene Royal in a election campaign marked by promises of sweeping change following 12 years of conservative rule under Jacques Chirac.

The 52-year-old son of a Hungarian immigrant has turned French politics on its head with an energetic hands-on style that has kept him firmly in the media spotlight over the past three months.

A poll published Wednesday in the leftwing Liberation newspaper showed 65 percent of the French approve of his performance in office, making him the most popular president since Charles De Gaulle.

But the first signs of trouble came this month when economic growth figures for the second quarter fell below expectations, casting doubt over whether the government can meet its target of 2.25 percent growth for this year.

This was bad news for the rightwing government which is banking on stronger growth to finance a 13.6 billion euro (19 billion dollar) package of tax breaks adopted by parliament last month.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon put up a brave face and said the growth target was still within reach as he moved to Phase II of the reform programme that could include unpopular measures to reduce health care costs and scrap pension plans that allow some public sector employees to retire as early as 50.

"It's certainly disappointing for the government.  It was counting on sustained growth in 2007 but it will probably be below target," commented analyst Mathieu Kaiser of BNPParibas bank.

Kaiser said sluggish growth could "reduce the window of opportunity for reforms."

"People will say 'now is not the time for reform, we are in a period of weak growth and you are implementing reforms that in the short term can have potentially negative effects on growth'," said Kaiser.

So far, opposition to Sarkozy has been subdued and there have been none of the massive street protests that have forced previous governments to back down from enacting change.

The leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, is accusing the president of favoring the rich with tax breaks that will inevitably come out of the taxpayers' pockets.

"The French people will be presented with a bill, perhaps as early as this autumn," Hollande warned at the weekend.

Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet this week announced plans for a mass rally in late October or early November to protest the "reactionary policies of Nicolas Sarkozy."

After spending two weeks holidaying in the United States, Sarkozy was back at work on Monday, holding meetings with his government on the economy and responding to a national outcry after a paedophile just released from prison was charged with raping a five-year-old boy.

"You say the honeymoon won't last, but you have been saying that for the past five years," Sarkozy commented in an interview Wednesday to a regional newspaper.

The president promised to carry out some 30 reform plans during his five-year term and asserted: "I will never be a static president."

AFP

Subject: French news

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