Nicolas Sarkozy: The problem with the president

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He swaggered into the Elysée Palace on a promise to reinvent France for the 21st century. But after just eight months, Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity is plummeting – and his personal life is becoming a soap opera. Is he up to the job? John Lichfield reports

Imagine, for a moment, President Charles de Gaulle in dark glasses and dark roll-top jumper sitting at a café terrace in Versailles with his newly married pop-singer wife.Imagine also le Général in open-neck shirt and jeans on an Egyptian holiday. The tall, austere saviour of France is walking, hand in hand, with Mick Jagger's ex-girlfriend. Her small son sits on his shoulders, looking embarrassed.

Imagine, for a moment, President Jacques Chirac in the Vatican, fiddling compulsively with the buttons of his mobile phone as his companions are being presented to the Pope. The presidential entourage includes, incidentally, France's most vulgar and foul-mouthed comedian, Jean-Marie Bigard, a kind of Gallic Bernard Manning.

Imagine, for a moment, President François Mitterrand receiving ministerial visits to his office in the Elysée Palace with his feet up on his desk. Worse, imagine the suave, icy President Mitterrand addressing almost everyone he meets with the familiar "tu", instead of the dignified and respectful "vous".

In his eight months as French head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy has done all these things and more. Genres have been confused, values muddled, conventions trampled, traditions overturned.

President Sarkozy promised last year to reinvent France for the 21st century, while preserving, or rekindling, "traditional values". He has started by reinventing – or, some say, desecrating – the French presidency.

The aloof, discreet, solemn, haughty, republican monarchy invented by Charles de Gaulle has become a non-stop blur of microphones, photo-opportunities, millionaire's yachts, Rolex watches, dark glasses, mobile phones, jeans, jogging shorts, a divorce, and now a trophy wife.

M. Sarkozy has become a kind of President "moi", governing with a mirror in one hand, seeking permanent, public attention and approval. In the last two weeks, however, events have started to spin out of the control of a man who is desperate to appear always in control.

If you have missed the most recent episodes in the Sarko soap opera, here is a brief update:

Less than four months after the spectacular break-up of his second marriage, the President who wants to restore "Catholic values" has married a beautiful, left-wing, libertarian pop-singer. His new bride, Carla Bruni, once said that she was "bored to death by monogamy".

According to a respected, centre-left magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, President Sarkozy sent a text message to his ex-wife Cécilia eight days before the marriage offering to "drop everything" if she came back to him. M. Sarkozy has brought a criminal action against the magazine for "forgery", but also for "receiving stolen goods". So, was the message a fake or was it "stolen"?

President Sarkozy's control over his own centre-right political party – almost complete two months ago – is under threat. Once again, his tangling of politics and family is to blame. The President tried to parachute his chief press officer, David Martinon, into the town hall of his own former fiefdom of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a millionaires' ghetto just west of Paris. M. Martinon, a close friend of M. Sarkozy's second, now ex-wife Cécilia proved to be a hopeless and unpopular candidate for mayor. He was forced to withdraw yesterday after a revolt by other local centre-right candidates, including Jean Sarkozy, 22, the President's son from his first marriage.

The soap-opera analogy is hardly far-fetched. With almost daily conflicts involving former wives, and confidants of former wives, and sons of previous marriages, the Elysée Palace has started to resemble the Ewing family ranch in Dallas. At first, even some of M. Sarkozy's political enemies found aspects of the informal, self-regarding Sarko style to be refreshing. There were some who argued that the new approach was part of a calculated attempt to change the way that France thinks of itself: to create a cult of success; to break down the old stuffy barriers between the French people and their ruling élite.

Now, many of President Sarkozy's supporters, and nominal allies, fear that the Sarko style may not be a style at all but an absence of style; a nouveau-riche vulgarité; a contempt for the importance of tradition; an arrogant belief that the office-holder is more important than the office.

Jean-Louis Debré, the president of France's constitutional council, part of a political dynasty with impeccable Gaullist and conservative credentials, caused a stir by saying publicly what many centre-right politicians are saying privately: President Sarkozy, as head of state, not a mere head of government, lacks "decorum" and "dignity".

"From the moment that you have been given a certain mission by the people, there are certain manners that you have to observe," said M. Debré, a member of the diehard Chiraquian wing of M. Sarkozy's centre-right party. "The authority of the state, and the legitimacy conferred upon you by the people, implies a certain decorum, a certain dignity of office ... You have to be careful not to desanctify your official function."

Many unpleasant remarks were attributed to the President's former wife Cécilia, by her biographer Anna Bitton earlier this month. She described her former husband as a serial "sauteur" (shagger) and a man who "loves no one, not even his children". She complained that M. Sarkozy had reacted to their divorce last October by holding "karaoke parties" with "bimbos" until four in the morning.

Attacks on an ex-husband by an ex-wife should, perhaps, be treated with caution. However, one relatively restrained comment by the second Mme Sarkozy was, maybe, the most telling of all: "Nicolas does not come over like a President of the Republic," she said. "He has a real behaviour problem. Someone needs to tell him."

For "someone" read a series of disastrous opinion polls. In a new Ipsos survey yesterday, to be published in full on Thursday, the President's approval rating will plunge to 39 per cent – 10 percentage points down in one month. Only President Chirac has ever fallen further and faster. One pollster said that many voters are beginning to wonder whether the Sarkozy of last year's election campaign – energetic, can-do, plain-speaking – had been, quite simply, an "imposter".

The President is losing ground especially among the socially conservative over-60s, precisely the constituency that gave him his handsome victory over the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, last May. If the election had been held among voters aged 18 to 60 alone, Royal would have won.

A youngish député (MP) in M. Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), told The Independent: "The view of my older constituents can be summarised as follows: 'We could swallow his divorce, even if it was his second one, and even if it happened so soon after he became President. But to marry again, less than four months after a divorce, is the kind of thing that you would be devastated to see your youngest son doing, let alone the President of the Republic.'"

M. Sarkozy's abrupt collapse in the polls is attributed by pollsters to a dangerous chemical reaction between two negatives. First, there is disappointment that President Sarkozy has failed to deliver his promised "shock of confidence" that would boost the economy and disposable income. Second, there is a growing distaste for the President's glitzy, showbiz lifestyle and his casual treatment of the presidential office. French people gave M. Sarkozy a 60 per cent-plus approval ratings only five months ago. They are now beginning to ask, in the words of one pollster, whether he is "all blah-blah and bling-bling". Is Speedy Sarkozy in danger of spinning off the track?



****

There was nothing wrong, in principle, with a change of presidential style. The old Mitterrand-Chirac act – I'm-all-powerful-but-not-always-responsible – was wearing thin. Both Mitterrand and Chirac upheld the pompous, avuncular traditions of the French presidency, but – as M. Sarkozy is quick to point out – both tainted the office in other ways. President Mitterrand secretly ran a second family. President Chirac manipulated the legal protections of his office to avoid criminal investigation for misuse of public funds.

There is something rather vulgar about M. Sarkozy, but his vulgarity and his energy are inseparable. Although he has been a politician since his twenties, he spent his formative years as mayor of the aforementioned millionaires' suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He is not part of the traditional French ruling class: effortlessly superior and understated, sustained by "old money" or the administrative certainties of the system of the grandes ecoles, or élite colleges.

President Sarkozy represents a Nouvelle France of media and advertising, luxury goods and "new" money. The society in which he moves is brash, self-promoting and full of energy and ideas, although not always good ones. It was not an accident – although it might be read as a provocation – that the witnesses at his wedding came from the world of luxury goods, high fashion and pop music.

Some political analysts, such as Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, a lecturer in political philosophy at the Sorbonne, argue that Sarkozy's "bling-bling" presidency is partly uncontrolled (that's simply the way he is), and partly calculated. M. Sarkozy is obsessed, he says, with the need to break out of the straitjacket of "democratic mediocrity". He wants to seem ordinary but at the same time, extraordinary. He wants to be a pragmatic, can-do politician with a pop-star lifestyle. He believes that this is the way to remain popular in a world in which politicians are doomed to seem mediocre, or powerless, or both. M. Sarkozy detests the suggestion that, in global terms, national politicians are often helpless to control events. He has an almost psychotic need to have an answer, and a policy, and an ideology, for everything.

Fellow centre-right politicians believe that they have the key to this part of M. Sarkozy's personality. He is determined to be seen to be the "anti-Chirac". Where his old mentor was semi-detached, Sarkozy wants to be involved. Where the father-figure that he abandoned had no clear political philosophy, Sarkozy wants to be a political thinker (even if he never seems to think the same thing for very long). Where the president that he outwitted was old, and old-fashioned, Sarkozy wants to be a pop icon of the 21st century.

But where is President Sarkozy going? The much-trumpeted, mould-breaking economic reforms have been rather modest so far. Unabashed by a lack of concrete results, President Sarkozy has made a series of sweeping "vision" statements: on Africa; on religion and social values; and on the need for a new "politics of civilisation", which will dethrone growth and material success as the engines of Western life and politics. There has been much that is intelligent in these statements, and much that is disturbing and confusing.

After eight months in office, we are no closer to answering the questions raised by his presidential campaign. President Sarkozy, the man hailed simplistically by the British and American right-wing press as a Gallic Margaret Thatcher, remains an interventionist and a protectionist at heart.

Two days after his wedding, he was standing outside a threatened steelworks in Lorraine promising the workers that the cash-strapped French state would never let their mill – or any other steel mill – close. Later the same day, he flew to Bucharest, spent only four hours in Romania, irritating his hosts, and flew back again. The day afterwards, it emerged that there was no legal basis on which President Sarkozy could bale out a failing steelworks belonging to a profitable company.

President Sarkozy's friends and political allies hope that his marriage will calm him and take his private life out of the news. (Some hope, you might say, with a beautiful pop-singer for a wife). They believe that the French presidency of the EU in the second half of this year will feed his bulimic need for work and attention. After discovering that he cannot achieve instant results, President Sarkozy is now prepared, they say, to enter a more reflective and calm passage of his presidency. The break-up with Cécilia badly unsettled a man who is agitated at the best of times, they say. The idyll with Carla – genuine, they insist, whatever Le Nouvel Observateur might claim – will help him to adopt a more restrained and thoughtful approach.

One of the first outward signs, officials say, is the President's new ideology, the "politics of civilisation" – an appeal for a more ecological, less market-driven approach to the future of the planet and humanity. (Is this also the first sign of the influence of his new left-wing wife?) The policy is far from wrong-headed. It addresses, quite cleverly, the zeitgeist of the "late Noughties". Across Europe, even across the Atlantic, the public mood is slowly turning against the tyranny of growth and markets in favour of softer, greener values.

"We cannot hope to change our ways of doing things and our way of thinking if our definitions of wealth remain the same," President Sarkozy said last month. "We need to take into account quality, not only quantity, to promote a new kind of growth."

The problem is that President Sarkozy had previously promised to be the "president of purchasing power". He had previously promised to make France "work more to earn more". He had previously promised to make France the "fastest growing country in the EU". A politician defined by billionaires' yachts, Rolex watches, Dior engagement rings and trophy wives is perhaps not best placed to preach that happiness cannot be achieved through material possessions.

Contradictions have always been part of the Sarko package. What had once seemed refreshingly original, an ability to straddle the normal boundaries of party and ideology, is now beginning to look merely shallow: an adman's talent for hijacking and exploiting hot-button issues.

When he visited the Pope in December, President Sarkozy made a complex, very thoughtful speech that is still reverberating through French politics and society five weeks later. In a deliberate break with the ideology of a "lay" or secular Republic, which has dominated French politics for the last century, M. Sarkozy said that France needed "moral thinking, inspired by religious convictions".



****

Another "imposture"? President Sarkozy is said by friends and family to be a fundamentally non-religious man. He rarely attends Mass. A couple of hours before his appeal for Catholic values, he fiddled with his mobile phone in front of the Pope. He brought a foul-mouthed stand-up comic – and devout Catholic – to Rome as part of his official delegation.

Politicians within M. Sarkozy's party – even his long-suffering, honorable Prime Minister, François Fillon – are struggling to keep up with the zigs and zags of "Sarkozisme". The president's inconsistencies, and rhetorical flourishes, are often blamed on his two most influential, unelected advisers, Henri Guaino, his speechwriter and "special councillor" and Claude Guéant, the secretary-general of the Elysée Palace. They are known as Sarkozy's "head and legs". They have become a kind of separate government, interfering – sometimes with unfortunate results – in domestic and foreign policy.

Both are Eurosceptic, market-sceptic, French nationalists. Both come from the old Gaullist tradition of a kind of paternalist, interventionist conservatism. Their influence infuriates the elected politicians in M. Sarkozy's party. So has his policy of "opening" his government to politicians of the centre-left, and inexperienced politicians of North African or African origin. The policy of racial "ouverture" was long overdue. It represents President Sarkozy's most important achievement to date.

All the same, UMP politicians – and not only those who feel cheated of ministerial posts – complain that M. Sarkozy's "openness" has led to an extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of one man. By promoting ministers from nowhere, or literally from left-field, President Sarkozy has excluded, or diminished, other centre-right politicians who had built power bases of their own.

Here is another paradox. By marginalising the Prime Minister, M. Fillon, President Sarkozy has made the presidency more powerful than ever. At the same time, he stands accused of weakening the sacred and symbolic power of the office, with his casual, and sometime thoughtless, behaviour.

"By leaping from one dossier to another, from Disneyland to the Vatican, from the world of politics to the high life, he seems to have no concern for the reputation of his office," said Jean-Pierre Le Goff, a sociologist who has just published a book on the rootlessness of modern France (La France morcelée, published by Gallimard). Sarkozy was elected on a promise to restore the moral bearings of France, allegedly progressively undermined since the student revolution of May 1968. Instead, M. Le Goff says, the President's odd behaviour has deepened the nation's already "profound sense of disorientation".

While M. Sarkozy was popular, his morass of contradictions was forgiven by his own supporters and, up to a point, by the French press. Since his collapse in the opinion polls, all bets are off.

Since the creation of an executive presidency in 1958, it has been the job of the French prime minister to be unpopular and shield the reputation of the president. The hyperactive M. Sarkozy has reversed the roles. He is plunging in the polls; his calm, thoughtful Prime Minister, François Fillon, is rising. This is unprecedented in modern French politics.

A section of the UMP – the party that M. Sarkozy brilliantly stole from under President Chirac's not-inconsiderable nose – is in open revolt. With municipal elections approaching in March, many centre-right candidates are scrambling to take the UMP colours and symbol off their literature and websites. This was happening even before the farcical calamity of M. Martinon's Sarko-inspired candidacy in Neuilly, the President's own power-base.

We have been here before, admittedly by a very different route. A French president sets out to be everything to everyone without doing much. He ends up by being unpopular with almost everybody. President Sarkozy, the anti-Chirac, may be more like Jacques Chirac than he thinks. But all is not lost. The President has more than four years in which to calm the excesses of his glitzy style. There is a difference, the French are telling him, between being youthful, informal, energetic and refreshing, and being inappropriate and annoying.

As France's most readable political commentator, Alain Duhamel, points out, the Sarko approach leaves no room for the undecided: "You worship him or you loathe him." If his reform policies begin to succeed, if the French economy turns upward (a big "if"), M. Sarkozy could become rapidly popular again.

All eyes will be on him and the new Mme Sarkozy when they make their first big state visit, on 26 March, to Britain. Of the two, it is perhaps France's First Lady who is less likely to do, or say, something disconcerting or embarrassing. A failed Sarkozy presidency would be a calamity, and not just for France. He sold himself to the French people as the energetic, pragmatic, democratic antidote to the extremes of both right and left. Except possibly the Prime Minister, M. Fillon, there is no obvious alternative to M. Sarkozy in the rest of the moderate French democratic landscape – on the right or the left.

Louis XV, the penultimate king before the French Revolution, is supposed to have said, "Après moi, le déluge". (After me, the flood or the downpour.) If M. Sarkozy fails, in a blaze of bling, France faces a similarly grim prospect. Après Président Moi, le déluge?

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