Out of favour Sarkozy accused of buying votes

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Tumbling in the opinion polls, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of trying to buy back votes with crowd-pleasing measures

   PARIS, February 8, 2008 - Tumbling in the opinion polls, French President
Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of trying to buy back votes Thursday with
crowd-pleasing measures to ward off disaster at next month's local elections.
   Stung by criticism that he has neglected the country's economic woes to
focus on his new bride Carla Bruni, the 53-year-old head of state has backed
away from a policy of strict budget discipline to offer inducements to
interest groups.
   On Wednesday he announced that a payment of 200 euros (290 dollars) will be
made from the end of March to some 634,000 old people living on the minimum
   The surprise bonus was explained as an advance on the pension increase that
formed part of Sarkozy's election manifesto, but it left critics wondering how
at a time of tight financial rigour the money had suddenly been made available.
   At the same time Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced a cave-in to
protesting taxi-drivers, who feared a planned liberalisation would leave them
exposed to competition from newcomers.
   After halting traffic in demonstrations across the country Wednesday,
taxi-drivers' leaders called off the action because they said the government
had promised not to enact the proposals.
   According to Le Figaro newspaper, the drivers have even been promised a
four percent increase in the fares they charge and a new tax rebate to take
account of soaring fuel costs.
   A further sign of the president's mood came on Monday when he visited a
loss-making steel plant in northeast France and promised the state was "ready
to pay in part or in whole for the investments necessary" to keep it afloat.
   A delegate from the General Labour Confederation (CGT) trade union said he
had "spoken like a true union man" after Sarkozy drew applause from a crowd of
workers at the ArcelorMittal factory at Gandrange.
   Some 600 jobs are under threat there, but any attempt to bail out the
factory could fall foul of European Union competition laws.
   Left-wing opposition members of parliament said Sarkozy had lurched into
populism after being panicked by his declining poll ratings, and hoped to claw
back votes in March's town-hall elections.
   "We have a president who is out campaigning again. He is talking like he is
on the hustings. Now the promises are coming thick and fast," said Malek
Boutih, Socialist Party spokesman.
   Segolene Royal, the defeated Socialist candidate in last May's election,
said there had been a "shock of mistrust which is now degenerating into a wind
of revolt."
   "Yesterday everything seemed possible, but now too much time has passed and
too much state money has been wasted. The crisis over spending power has not
been addressed, the future has not been prepared," she told Le Monde newspaper.
   There were also rumblings inside Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement
(UMP) party, where many deputies fear an anti-government backlash next month
will cost them their second jobs as mayors of cities, towns and villages.
   Privately, some deputies say that Sarkozy's much-publicised romance with
model-turned-singer Bruni has been a public relations disaster because it
clashed so glaringly with the darkening mood of the country.
   This week new surveys confirmed Sarkozy's plunging popularity, with
Paris-Match magazine reporting a seven point fall to 46 percent in his
approval ratings. A poll in the left-wing Liberation newspaper found 55
percent with a negative opinion of the president -- up 13 points in a month.
   A poll for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday said that for 31
percent of the public the president's image had deteriorated as a result of
his marriage to Bruni, his third wife.


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