What next after Sarkozy's tumble from grace?
In our regular News Focus, Emma Charlton reviews the President's first ten months, as Carla begins to fit the role of Mrs Sarkozy.
Ten months after Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency got off to a flying start, France's love affair with its taboo-breaking young leader has drawn to a brutal end, leaving him fighting to win back the country's trust.
After one of the brightest debuts of any French president, and poll ratings
to match, the 53-year-old Sarkozy's turbulent private life and a faltering
economy have combined in recent months to reduce his popularity to tatters.
Sarkozy's right-wing camp is now bracing for painful losses in local
elections on March 9-16 which the Socialist opposition cast as a referendum on
his presidency, with his approval rating at a rock-bottom 33 percent.
"There is a real falling-out of love, a real defiance and even, for part of the electorate, a kind of allergic reaction," said Frederic Dabi of the IFOP polling institute.
"We've never seen anything like this, a head of state collapsing so fast,
not because of reforms but because of his personality," agreed Dominique
Reynie, professor at Sciences Po university.
Despite energetic attempts to seize back the initiative with field trips
and policy announcements, Sarkozy has failed to reverse the trend.
Instead he committed a spectacular blunder last week by swearing at a man
who refused to shake his hand at a farm show, calling him a "stupid bastard".
"There is no event more quintessentially French than the agriculture fair,
And the president stood there in the midst of the French people, and lost his
cool by insulting someone, twice," said Reynie, who believes the outburst did
"irreparable" harm to Sarkozy's image.
Voters who last May cast hopeful ballots for Sarkozy's promise of a
dynamic, youthful presidency, and bold reforms to fire up the economy and
boost spending power, feel let down both in style and substance, pollsters say.
Fifty-six percent of voters think Sarkozy "badly represents" the
presidency, with a personal, hands-on approach to power -- critics accuse him
of running an "elective monarchy" -- and a taste for luxury that earned him
the nickname "Bling-Bling president".
The president's much-publicised divorce from his second wife Cecilia in
October, his jet-setting romance and swift marriage to ex-supermodel Carla
Bruni, gave voters the impression he was neglecting their needs.
With food prices soaring and consumer confidence at all-time low, the
president's admission in January that the "state coffers are empty" was the
final straw for many voters, even though the government insists its economic
reforms have yet to show their effect.
"He chose to put himself on the front line, and now he's the one taking the
bullets," said Dabi.
In a further embarrassing blow, support for the lower-key style of
government of Prime Minister Francois Fillon has soared as the president's own popularity collapses.
The opposition has suggested Sarkozy's presidency is coming apart at the seams -- but however low he falls the French president cannot be impeached, with the next presidential and parliamentary elections set for 2012.
If however, as polls suggest, Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)
loses major cities to the opposition this month, he could face mounting
pressure to change tack: to become, in Reynie's words, a "normal" president.
"That means someone with advisors who stick to advising, with ministers who
have real room for manoeuvre, a prime minister who does his job, and a
president whom we see rarely, who focuses on strategy."
Last week Sarkozy insisted he was unfazed by his poll slump, saying it was
linked to "events" in his personal life, not politics.
"My understanding of the role of head of state is not about making people
like me," said the president. "For decades France did not make the choices
that it should have. My job is to defend my convictions and to carry on."
In any case, wrote the pro-government newspaper Le Figaro, "It appears that
Nicolas Sarkozy has to get used to the idea that he is lastingly unpopular."
"We have rarely seen such a brutal fall from grace give way to a sudden
return of affection."
It may be therefore be some consolation for Sarkozy that his celebrity
bride Carla Bruni, far from bringing scandal to the Elysee, has eased
seamlessly into the role of first lady.
The 40-year-old model-turned-singer -- whose past boyfriends include Mick
Jagger and Eric Clapton -- has ditched her rock star lifestyle for a demure
new wardrobe, and set about cultivating her new image.
"The marriage went ahead, she is Mrs Sarkozy now, and so long as there is
no reason for recrimination there will be no more scandals," said Reynie.
(expatica March 2008)