Sarkozy damaged by farm show slanging match

John Lichfield
Monday 25 February 2008 01:00

President Nicolas Sarkozy was drawn into a crude slanging match with a member of the public at France's annual farm show at the weekend.

At the same time, his relations with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, appear to have sunk to a new low. M. Sarkozy has also picked a fight with France's supreme legal arbiter, the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Friends and senior colleagues have been begging the hyperactive and embattled President Sarkozy to steer clear of fresh controversy and try to generate an atmosphere of purpose and calm. They received their answer at the weekend. M. Sarkozy intends to be M. Sarkozy.

An opinion poll yesterday showed another steep fall in M. Sarkozy's popularity, to just 38 per cent. The Ifop poll showed the approval rating for the Prime Minister, François Fillon, climbing to 57 per cent.

The see-saw act between the two men is unprecedented in modern French politics. Except in times of co-habitation between politicians of right and left, the Prime Minister is supposed to be the shield or whipping boy for the President. Instead, President Sarkozy is sinking fast and M. Fillon is rising.

There has been talk of a government reshuffle if, as expected, M. Sarkozy's centre-right party does badly in municipal elections in two weeks' time. There has even been speculation that Sarkozy might sack Fillon. The question now arises: can an unpopular president sack a popular prime minister?

Growing doubts about M. Sarkozy's whirlwind style and lack of presidential gravitas will be reinforced by an incident at the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris on Saturday. During a walkabout in a dense crowd, President Sarkozy tried to shake hands with a middle-aged man. The man said: "No, don't touch me." The President said: "Get lost, then." The man said: "You are dirtying me." The President replied: "Get lost then, you poor cretin." A video of the incident has attracted hundreds of thousands of hits on French internet sites.

Meanwhile, the difficult relations between M. Sarkozy and Ms Merkel, have fallen to a new low. A Franco-German summit in Bavaria a week today has been postponed for three months because of the M. Sarkozy's "crowded schedule". Ms Merkel has been irked by M. Sarkozy's familiar style and his attempts to create a Mediterranean union, which Berlin fears will weaken the EU.

President Sarkozy has also entered a potentially damaging battle with the Conseil Constitutionnel. The council said that a new law, allowing dangerous criminals to be kept in custody indefinitely, could not apply to people convicted before the law was passed. The President has asked for ways to circumvent this ruling – an unprecedented challenge to the council's authority.

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