To blame? Moi? Sarkozy tells the French it's all their fault

A year in, and the president's honeymoon period comes to an abrupt halt
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The Independent Online

The president is in trouble, and the president says that it is the president's fault. Not his own fault, but the fault of the previous president, Jacques Chirac, and the president before that and the president before that ...

Nicolas Sarkozy, who celebrates one year in office next Friday, is now the least popular president in the half century of the French Fifth Republic. In a combative, and some said arrogant, pep talk to his centre-right parliamentarians last week, President Sarkozy blamed everyone but himself.

It was the fault of his former mentor, President Chirac, who had given up trying to reform France after six months. It was the fault of the French people, who detested change. It was the fault of the French press, which had turned itself into a rabid "opposition" because the nominal, Socialist-led opposition was so "useless".

President Sarkozy even took side-swipes at the late President François Mitterrand and his own political hero, Charles de Gaulle. "It was a political strategy seminar of incredible arrogance," said one deputy from Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Two weeks ago, President Sarkozy seemed to have decided that, to make something of his four remaining years in office, he must take a humbler approach. In a prime-time television interview, he admitted that he had made "mistakes", but promised to push ahead with his plans to make the French state smaller and to encourage France to work harder. This kinder, gentler Sarko does not appear to have lasted for very long, though.

Even with four years remaining and the opposition scattered and divided, Sarkozy is in serious trouble. The presidency that began so triumphantly a year ago, promising not just to reform France but to change the mentality of France, has lost much of its credibility and momentum.

The parallels with Gordon Brown in Britain are compelling. Here are two men who seemed to have spent their whole political lives plotting and jostling to reach the top spot. Both, when they got there, had the misfortune to be confronted with a financial crisis and an economic downturn. More damagingly, both men appear to have little idea of how to conduct themselves in the job that they had coveted for so long.

President Sarkozy's popularity was still in the mid-60s in September. But since then his divorce from his second wife, Cecilia, his whirlwind courtship and marriage to the pop singer and model Carla Bruni, his showbiz lifestyle and unseemly public quarrels with members of the public have sent his percentage poll ratings into a tailspin.

Pollsters say that, most of all, President Sarkozy has suffered from a devastating chemical reaction in the public mind between the falling living standards of ordinary people and his glamorous "personalisation" of the presidency. Here was a president who had promised to seek growth "with my teeth" and to be the "president of purchasing power" but plunged, in the public perception, into a self-indulgent, "bling-bling" style of government.

In both his television interview and last week's pep talk for UMP deputies, the President suggested that his unpopularity was partly generated by France's aversion to reform. In fact, the polls suggest that more French people are disappointed by the timidity of the Sarkozy reform programme than outraged by the pace of change.

Sarkozy has started a series of social and economic reforms, tackling pensions, health care, universities and the trade unions. Some have been completed, some half-abandoned, some hardly begun. In some cases, such as pensions, he has made advances. In others, such as the ramshackle French university system, the reforms are hardly more than cosmetic.

Despite calls from within his own party for a more disciplined, less scatter-gun approach, the president insists that he will push ahead with a broad programme of change. Menacingly, much of the opposition to his ideas – especially a reform of the institutions of state – is now coming from within his own centre-right camp.

Sarkozy has lost the momentum, and the can-do image that swept him to power a year ago. To regain momentum, once it is lost, is notoriously difficult for politicians. For this president, whose programme was always partly psychological – to brush away bickering negativism and hidden barriers and create a "France that wins" – the game may already be lost.

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