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
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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.