John Lichfield: The deflation of President Sarkozy

He is in a double-bind, excoriated more for his rhetoric than for his achievements
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The Independent Online

News just in from France. The President is unpopular; the people are revolting; mainstream politicians are scorned; the Far Right is rising. The government is accused of breaking its promise to hasten "change". At the same time, a majority of French people applaud protest against the change for which they voted.

It is déjà vu all over again.

Three years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy claimed to have abolished the perverse rules of modern French politics. He promised "rupture" with the muddled recent past. He promised never to retreat in the face of popular anger.

A new era, or at least a new style, in French politics had dawned. The President was no longer an avuncular old bloke in the back of a limousine. He was a man who jogged daily in the Bois de Boulogne; he was a man who exchanged insults with passers-by at the Paris agricultural show; he was a man who had whirlwind romances with pop singers.

He would be his own Prime Minister and his own Foreign Minister (and President of Europe in his spare time). He would appoint ministers from the Left, Right and Centre. He would promote women and people from ethnic minorities to senior positions of power (to make a welcome political point but also to show his centre-right colleagues that there was only one boss.)

Most of all, President Sarkozy set out to mess with France's mind not just to reform its economy and institutions. He wanted to generate an unFrench belief that "everything is possible"; that enterprise should no longer be unfashionable; that the old caste barriers to advancement, in a country supposedly devoted to Egalité, would be torn down.

Three years on, President Sarkozy has suffered a humiliating drubbing in mid-term regional elections. In the first round, his centre-right party and its allies fell to their lowest score in 50 years. President Sarkozy's percentage approval rating is in the mid-30s. Over half of French voters – 58 per cent according to a poll this week – think that he should not even bother to run again. Almost 60 per cent say they will vote for a left-wing president in 2012.

At a private meeting on Tuesday of his centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the President received a verbal battering. The government was trying to do too much, the deputies said; or it was not doing enough. Sarkozy's narrative had once seemed clear but he had lost the plot. He should now retreat into the sphinx-like posture of previous presidents, who were in power but responsible for nothing very much. Within a couple of hours, the government had scrapped Mr Sarkozy's cherished "carbon" or "green" tax, which was supposed to be the model for the developed world's approach to climate change. So much for no U-turns.

Where has it all gone wrong for Nicolas Sarkozy? Can he recover before the presidential campaign of 2012?

The global recession has not helped but many of the failures, and contradictions, of Sarkozyism were predictable. His economic policy has always been an unconventional mixture of state interference and tax cuts for the wealthy – De Gaulle's nose and Mrs Thatcher's handbag. He promised to seek growth "with my teeth". Then he spoke of the need to replace the too-brutal measurement of GDP with a softer measure of Greater Domestic Happiness.

He set out to attack the French Model; and then claimed that the French Model had shielded France from the severest effects of a British and America-inspired recession.

Mr Sarkozy finds himself in a curious double-bind. He is excoriated more for his rhetoric than his achievements. He is accused by the Left and part of his own centre right of imposing draconian, Anglo-Saxon-inspired reforms. The right-wing of his own party accuses him of failing to pursue the agenda for radical change on which he was elected in 2007. In truth, Mr Sarkozy has pushed through a couple of modest, overdue and partial changes in the university and health and pension systems. He has, at least, faced up to the reality that France cannot afford its admirable social model unless it generates more wealth and saves its health and pension systems from bankruptcy. His record is somewhat better than the two steps forward one step back shuffle of the Chirac years.

But the French economy is struggling and the enormous budget deficit is attracting the interest of speculators. Differences with Angela Merkel on Greek debt, the fate of the Euro, and some sort of political oversight of Euroland, have made Franco-German relations tetchy, verging on dangerously strained.

Mr Sarkozy's erratic approach could have been swallowed by Mr Sarkozy's supporters. They did swallow it for a long time. At the start of his presidency, there was a new mood in France to accept the need for painful reform.

What has changed is that core Sarkozy supporters have lost faith, and patience, with the style and personality of Sarko himself. Two events, above all, have angered them. The first was the promotion to culture minister of Frédéric Mitterrand, the late president's nephew: not only another leftie but also a homosexual and writer of dubious autobiographical books about cruising Thai boy-bars.

Worse, there was the egregious Jean Sarkozy affair. Here was a President who spoke of equal opportunities for all and his determination to break down the French elites. Here was the same President pretending it was quite normal for his unqualified, handsome, law student son to be promoted to political head of the vast La Défense office ghetto on the outskirts of Paris. Mr Sarkozy's claim to be a different kind of politician, closer to the thinking of real people, died in defence of his overhasty son's right to be boss of La Défense.

Can Sarko recover? Maybe. The excellent performance of the Left and Greens at the weekend is misleading. The main opposition party, the Socialists, have no obvious candidate – or rather too many obviously inadequate candidates – for the 2012 elections. They have nothing coherent yet, to say to the electorate.

But the President is now a Tsarkozy without clothes; a dwarfish Wizard of Oz who has been evicted from behind his all-conquering, no-U-turning, action-man image. There is talk in Paris that he could decide not to run again in 2012. That is premature. But Mr Sarkozy, though not yet beaten, is beatable.