Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to fix France, but leaves a broken nation

Nicolas Sarkozy was a victim of the financial crisis – and his own craving for power

Paris

So farewell, Nicolas Sarkozy. If he is to be believed – and abrupt changes of direction are part of his charm – Mr Sarkozy will now seek a new life outside politics. He told journalists privately as long ago as January: "If I lose, you won't be seeing me again... I will go off and make some money."

Mr Sarkozy, 57, has been a professional politician since he became mayor of his home town, the super-wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly, aged 28.

Elected President in 2007, he promised to be an exciting, can-do leader, who would drag the old country into the 21st century while preserving the best of French national identity. Now, he leaves office as one of its most unpopular leaders since France switched to presidential politics 50 years ago.

Mr Sarkozy wanted to break the mould of French politics and French society. He wanted, as Margaret Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s, to mess with the mind of France: to make the country more outward-looking, more confident and more entrepreneurial.

As recently as February, he invited Chancellor Angela Merkel to be his de facto running mate and argued that France should be more like Germany. He ended up fighting for political survival by aping the navel-gazing, ultra-nationalist language, themes, and tactics of the far-right National Front.

Historians will decide whether the people of France defeated his plans to drag the country into the 21st century; or whether Mr Sarkozy – despite his flag-waving – proved to be a man who did not understand France and could not lead his country through a time of crisis and shifts in global economic power.

In one sense, Mr Sarkozy is just another victim of the financial crisis. He will also be seen as a victim of his attempts to shrink the sprawling French state. In truth, though his pension reform was courageous, his other attempted reforms were relatively modest.

But Mr Sarkozy's deep unpopularity began before the crisis. His poll ratings plunged from the high sixties (a new record) in the summer of 2007 to the high thirties (another record) in the spring of 2008. The intervening period was a blur of a divorce, a marriage to popstar Carla Bruni, and a string of incidents of unpresidential behaviour, such as fiddling with his mobile phone in the presence of the Pope and exchanging insults with members of the public.

Mr Sarkozy promised the French people that his presidency would be all about them; they rapidly concluded that it was mostly about him. There is another explanation for Mr Sarkozy's unpopularity. He ignored the basic rule of French presidential politics. He tried to be his own de facto prime minister.

French prime ministers are like medieval Lord Chamberlains – there to be hated. The President, shielded by the Prime Minister, traditionally enjoys an indulgence in the hearts of the people.

There were good Sarkozy moments: his leadership of the European Union in 2008; his co-leadership with David Cameron during the Libyan conflict.

But he leaves France weaker, more divided and more muddled than he found it. His disgraceful campaign in recent weeks – appealing to racial and religious tensions – may do lasting damage to French society and politics. His own centre-right party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire, could divide between the moderates, who secretly detested Mr Sarkozy's campaign, and the populists, who adored it.

What will he do next? He may go back to his other career as a business lawyer. His specialism was advising French companies how to move factories abroad. In recent weeks, he has campaigned for French and European "economic nationalism". Consistency has never been one of Mr Sarkozy's obsessions.

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