It has been a black week for Nicolas Sarkozy. At a pivotal time in the presidential election campaign, he has suffered what one French newspaper described as “une semaine horribilis”.
There was a mini-riot in which he was pelted with eggs by left-wingers and Basque nationalists. He made a serious blunder by announcing prematurely the evacuation of an injured French journalist from Syria. He has twice made ill-considered and intemperate remarks.
Worst of all, a tracking poll suggests that voting intentions for the first round of the election on 22 April are once again shifting in favour of the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande. The IFOP daily poll – said to be the survey most watched by the Elysée Palace – put Mr Hollande 3.5 points ahead of Mr Sarkozy yesterday, compared to 1.5 per cent in the middle of the week.
Mr Hollande’s spectacular proposal on Monday to tax income over €1,000,000 at 75 per cent also appears to have damaged Mr Sarkozy. Although widely criticised at home and abroad, the super-tax idea seems to have solidified the Socialist candidate’s core vote.
Since President Sarkozy officially joined the campaign three weeks ago, he has been criss-crossing the country, declaring himself to be a “Frenchman among the French” ready to combat the Parisian “elite”. But his arrival in Bayonne, in the Basque country, in south west France on Thursday evening did no go according to plan.
Mr Sarkozy was met by a hostile crowd of 1,000 demonstrators, partly Basque nationalists and partly young left-wingers, who forced him to take refuge in a café. As eggs pelted against the café window, Mr Sarkozy angrily told accompanying journalists that the riot was the fault of Mr Hollande.
He said the Socialist candidate had announced two weeks ago that he would “purge” the French state of Sarkozy sympathisers if he was elected. This had “over-heated the mood of people at the grass-roots”, the president said.
The word that Mr Sarkozy chose – “epuration” or purge – is usually employed to refer to the witch-hunt of Nazi and Vichy sympathisers in 1944-5 in which 9,000 people were executed. The president’s use of the loaded term was decried by the French media yesterday as intemperate and a sign that Mr Sarkozy was losing his nerve.
Mr Hollande said that it was a typical example of the President’s “culture of excess”. Earlier in the week, Mr Sarkozy had also been widely criticised for making a personal attack on Mr Hollande’s romantic partner, the TV journalist Valerie Trierweiller.
The president is often attacked by the Left for having wealthy friends. Mr Sarkozy suggested that Mr Hollande had no room to speak, since his girl-friend worked for the billionaire business tycoon, Vincent Bolloré. But as Ms Trierweiller angrily pointed out on Twitter, she merely worked for a TV station, Direct 8, which is partly owned by Mr Bolloré.
French presidential voting intentions tend to solidify in late February and early March. The President told supporters at the beginning of the week that his campaign had a fortnight in which to overtake Mr Hollande.