Andreas Whittam Smith: Sarkozy could be toppled by the downgrade

The credit downgrade is widely seen as an adverse judgement on Sarkozy's record in office


Will Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, be a further casualty of the eurozone crisis, driven out of office like Silvio Berlusconi and George Papandreou before him? Sarkozy is a formidable political fighter. He has something of the Muhammad Ali about him, with his ability to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

So in preparing for the first round of the presidential election, now less than 100 days away, he has produced a flurry of initiatives and plans as he dances around his main opponent, the Socialist Party candidate, Francois Hollande, jabbing him from all directions.

Yet this clever ring-craft may not be enough to save Sarkozy. For France's loss of the top credit rating for its debt, Triple A, has a serious consequence. It affects not only France itself, but also the President's standing. For the extraordinary fact is that the notion of a Triple A rating, a concept until recently only understood by a small number of financial experts, has now entered the French language. Everybody talks about it; everybody knows what it means.

As a result, the credit downgrade is widely seen as an adverse judgment on the President's record. On entering office, he promised that he would bring about a rupture with the past and introduce vigorous can-do attitudes. He wanted to jolt France into a more enterprising future. But now the electorate sees clearly that Sarkozy hasn't succeeded.

More serious still, the downgrading vis-à-vis Germany, which retains its Triple-A rating, means that President Sarkozy can no longer present himself as the essential and equal partner of Germany and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

As one French newspaper commented: "Sarkozy's policy of positioning France as the alter ego of Germany has failed." This means that the German Chancellor is on her own now, alone on the bridge of a ship skirting the rocks.

While this news may not much help Sarkozy's principal opponent, Mr Hollande, it boosts the campaigns of two other dangerous competitors, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front and Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist grouping, MoDem. This is critical for Sarkozy, because the latest opinion poll shows that the gap between the four main candidates has narrowed considerably at an early stage in the campaign. For the first round, Francois Hollande is in the lead with 29 per cent of the intentions to vote. Sarkozy trails him on 23 per cent. Marine Le Pen has 18 per cent and Francois Bayrou in on 14 per cent. The last two are rising while the first two are drifting downwards.

Superficially, the news is helpful for the Socialist candidate. He was quick to say that it wasn't France that had been downgraded, but the President. Yet the more serious the economic situation becomes, the more experience counts. Hollande's problem is that, although a clever and attractive personality, he has never held office. Instead for many years he was the Socialist Party's general secretary. He was the ultimate man of the machine.

Marine Le Pen is served better by the loss of Triple A status. She has already proposed that France extricates itself from the euro as well as from the European Union itself. She would levy a general tariff on imports and reduce legal immigration from 200,000 a year to 10,000. The credit downgrade strengthens her arguments; she can say that belonging to Europe has failed to protect France from ruthless international capitalism. So hostility to the European institutions is further strengthened and each time this happens, the structure of the eurozone is weakened.

In his turn, Francois Bayrou can use the downgrade to support his standing as an "anti-system" candidate. Since 2007 he has consistently warned about the state of the public finances, saying the roots of the crisis go back to the early 1990s and that therefore both major parties are to blame.

So where are we now? The opinion polls tell us that, as matters stand, Hollande and Sarkozy would each get through to the second round and that Hollande would then be the clear winner. The trouble is that his thinking about the economic crisis is at about the same unrealistic stage as Gordon Brown's during his last months as Prime Minister.

But recent movements in opinion suggest that Le Pen could overtake Sarkozy in the first round of voting and herself face Hollande. In which case, everybody supposes she would be thoroughly beaten, as her father was when facing Jacques Chirac in 2002, having first knocked out the Socialist contender, Lionel Jospin.

The main uncertainty for all concerned is Francois Bayrou. He could attract Sarkozy supporters, who would back him on the grounds that he is more likely to beat Hollande. And then, still an outside chance, he could come through as victor in the second round. He wouldn't be a technocrat like the new Italian leader. But he might have refreshing views on solving the great crisis that would make a useful difference to the outcome.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tony Blair’s time as Middle East envoy representing the US, Russia, the UN and the EU has come to an end  

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Robert Fisk
Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin. Was Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup unfairly?  

Fifa arrests: Is it the final whistle for corruption in world football?

Mary Dejevsky
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada