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“Starkozysme": the French president’s retreat

Patrice de Beer
27 March 2008

The test of a successful politician is often his or her ability to recover from a setback. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president triumphantly elected only in May 2007, has just reached that fateful threshold. Three months of opinion-poll freefall, leaving him with a current positive rating of around 37%, has been punctuated by a disastrous double-encounter with the voters (on 9 and 16 March 2008) when in the municipal and county elections his rightist coalition lost control of the majority of French cities and départements. The Parti socialiste (PS) and its allies may be part of a discredited left lacking intellectual coherence or strategic direction, but Sarkozy’s and the right’s failure has presented them with control of around 60% of départements (against 30% in the 1990s) and twenty out of twenty-two metropolitan regions. Even cities like Normandy’s Caen (said to “have been on the right since William the Conqueror”) or the border town of Metz (ruled by the right since the establishment of a [male] democratic franchise in 1848) fell to the left.

It gets worse for a figure nicknamed the “hyper-president” or “president Bling-Bling” for his ultra-personalisation of power and attraction to media exposure (an image that gains further lustre from his state visit to the United Kingdom on 26-27 March in the company of his new wife, the ex-model and pop-singer Carla Bruni). For the left has recovered from its all-time low of 36% in the parliamentary elections of 2007 to 48.5% in the municipal elections (and even its first ever absolute majority, 51%, in the departmental elections. At grassroots level, Sarkozy's France is now à gauche.

The fact and the scale of Sarkozy’s defeat to a PS dramatically lacking programme, ideas and strategy - and suffering an overflow of self-proclaimed leaders - show how much the French presidential image has been shattered. Yet the same polls that track “Sarko’s” public discredit also indicate substantial (if not unqualified) popular support for his proposed “reforms” (and, particularly for his grey prime minister, François Fillon). The implication is that citizens’ censure is targeted less at their president's policies but at the man himself, his character and in particular his style. The energy that may once have been winning (some compared him to the Duracell-batteries rabbit), the touch of glamour and danger that may once have been enticing after the long dying fall of the Jacques Chirac years - these have faded, leaving voters to ask: “Where’s the beef?”

A change of heart

The date things started to change can be pinpointed: a press conference on 8 January 2008 when the man elected as the professed “president of people's income” responded to a question about fulfilling his election promises with a terse statement: “The state coffers are empty”.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le MondeAmong Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution" (8 May 2007)

"Le Monde's democratic coup" (30 May 2007)

"A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007)

"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007)

"The French temptation" (31 August 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's world" (10 October 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test" (29 November 2007)

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

Sarkozy may have wished to sound presidential, but his statement was read by millions of low-income wage-earners and pensioners (many of whom had voted for him) as either a breach of promise or as evidence that the reforms he had promised would at last change France for the better were failing. In either event, this was not the thing to say at the very moment the global economic crisis was knocking at France's door; when fixed incomes were being eroded by major rises in food, energy and housing prices; when companies listed on the Paris stock-exchange were posting vast profits; and when a doubling of the president’s own stipend was being matched by the glitzy, jet-set ambience in which his new love interest was bathed.

The setbacks in his popularity have provoked Sarkozy’s sharp political antenna into action. He seems anxious to find remedies, of two kinds, from the serious dent in his shining armour. In style, by shedding (or concealing) the visibly extravagant lifestyle, the private yachts and executive jets belonging to billionaire friends, the emblematic Ray-Ban sunglasses and Rolex watches, the conspicuous public cuddling with his new amour. In political substance, by reassuring his more traditional conservative voters, halting his much-vaunted ouverture (opening up) strategy towards some leftwing politicians, polishing his sometimes coarse language, and (according to his close friend and secretary-general of the UMP party, Patrick Devedjian) planning to move his presidency from a “baroque” to a more sober “classical” style.

UMP MPs, shattered by their defeat and furious over the devastating electoral consequences of Starkozysme (a term crafted by political scientist and former socialist MEP Olivier Duhamel and journalist Michel Field in a new book of the same name) have been promised that will be consulted about the government's legislative work, until now monopolised by Sarkozy's personal advisers in the Elysée palace.

The president's post-election rationale is that the meaning of voters’ disgruntlement is a desire for extended and accelerated reforms which show the promised results. But the same polls that provide some evidence for this view also suggest that 60% of the French disapprove of Sarkozy's economic and social policies as well as the key failure to bridge the growing chasm between static income and soaring prices. French people may realise that things have to change, but - after so many réformes which have cut into the welfare state in the last generation - the word réforme has acquired a negative meaning.

Today, many families with full-time jobs paid at or only a little above the minimum wage can't pay their bills and face poverty and even evicted from their council flats. An incomes policy has become much more important to such people than the public security and immigration controls on which Sarkozy built much of his support. The middle classes too see themselves as squeezed by economic forces out of their control. To both groups, Sarkozy has been unable to explain how a coherent reform package can be made from the combination of ever-expanding plans and a cascade of short-term interventions: dealing with the shortage of taxis in Paris, abolishing advertising on public television, subsidising fishermen’s gas oil, or even injecting religion into daily life.

Sarkozy's instinct to announce near-daily initiatives (often linked to dramas hyped by the TV news) that promise to act right away - often to solve problems already addressed by a bill everyone has forgotten about - is unsettling to a country accustomed to being governed by fatherly and reassuring figures, and to a society afraid of the present and future.

A new face

Sarkozy now says that he has changed, and that such behaviour is part of his former political life. He has responded to his political mentor and the former prime minister Edouard Balladur, who (in an amazing op-ed in Le Monde, on 22 February 2008) had asked him to be more “consistent” and “focused” on his policy and “to stop creating a new event every day”. He has no alternative if he wants to regain popular support; but he knows too that in changing he risks becoming identified with the more traditional style of his predecessors – especially the Jacques Chirac he loathes - and thus losing the “modernist” image which was a key factor in his rise to popularity.

The question thus remains: will Nicolas Sarkozy be able to retain his new posture, to keep focused on major issues while devolving day-to-day manage-ment to his prime minister? Will he be able, and for how long, to contain his temper and the edge of contempt for others? Even as France is beset by a host of policy dilemmas and hard economic choices, the mediacratic France which Sarkozy has helped to enhance means that a change in style may be even more important for the president than a change of policy.

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