Sarkozy recasts himself as 'protector-president'

4th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Sarkozy has been forced to re-invent himself in times of crisis as he remains unpopular but unchallenged.

PARIS – Humbled by the economic crisis, France's "hyper-president" Nicolas Sarkozy remains unpopular but unchallenged at home after two years in power, and his upfront style still rattles Europe.

The right-winger celebrates two years since his election at the Elysee palace this week as the French economy, like that of other European powers, sinks into its worst recession since World War II.

After promising a new era of change, Sarkozy has been forced to re-invent himself as a protective leader in times of economic turmoil and soften some of his rhetoric about reform.

"He is continuing to reform while portraying himself as a protector-president who is staying the course, weathering the storm," said Gael Sliman, director of the BVA private polling firm.

"By doing so, he is scoring reserve points for when the economic turnaround comes, some time before the next presidential election" in 2012, he said.

After a year of low approval ratings, Sarkozy's poll numbers have been climbing, from a low point of 32 percent last year to some 43 percent in the latest BVA poll last week.

The upswing comes as more than one million people have taken part in demonstrations nationwide to protest Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis and demand a freeze on public sector job cuts.

Some 250,000 people have joined the ranks of France's 2.2 million jobless already this year and workers angry over layoffs are staging "bossnappings" despite warnings from Sarkozy that such radical tactics are illegal.

But a recent profile of Sarkozy in the pro-Elysee Le Figaro daily suggested the president was not losing any sleep over poll ratings or social unrest.

This new "quiet confidence", according to Le Figaro, comes from Sarkozy's knowledge that there is no strong challenger on the horizon, in particular from the Socialist Party which remains weak under new leader Martine Aubry.

In one of Europe's most watched elections in years, Sarkozy trounced Socialist challenger Segolene Royal in the vote on May 6, 2007, promising to rev up the economy and raise living standards through sweeping reform.

But a new book by two French economists who have analyzed several flagship measures have concluded that pension and labour reforms for instance have been nothing less than a failure.

"A lot of issues are tackled and there is movement," said Pierre Cahuc, co-author of "The Failed Reforms of President Sarkozy" released last month.

"But the way in which they are approached, in a very superficial manner, too quickly and without enough transparency has lead to catastrophic results," he said.

Cahuc argued that in many instances concessions offered in exchange for agreement turned out to be costly and that initiatives were dramatically watered down in parliament by MPs beholden to interest groups.

Sarkozy spent six months in the sun last year during France's presidency of the European Union, working to end the Russian-Georgian war in South Ossetia and forge a European response to the banking crisis after the collapse of US investment giant Lehman Brothers in September.

His high-energy approach to the EU presidency won him broad praise, but his blunt-talking style has raised eyebrows in many European capitals.

"Sarkozy is a doer and not a thinker," comments Philipe Whyte, senior researcher at the London-based Centre for European Reform. "This brings a lot of inconsistencies with it and can rub people up in the wrong way."

The president recently landed himself in hot water when he reportedly disparaged fellow leaders at an Elysee luncheon, saying US President Barack Obama was inexperienced and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was following his lead.

Sarkozy's office denied he made the remarks that were widely reported and come as the French leader is trying to position himself as Obama's point man for Europe ahead of the US leader's visit to France in June.

AFP / Expatica

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