Sarkozy Rolls out His Tongue

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

His outspoken style is unprecedented, unpopular, and now threatens to ruin his presidency.

French cartoonists are having great sport with their president, portraying him in the Adventures of Nicolas Sarkozy as the king of "bling," an impish Casanova full of swashbuckling tales of derring-do. Of course, he's provided some great material. Trading one glamorous wife for another, dashing off to Chad in November to rescue a group of French journalists in jail, declaring himself "ready" last week to rescue hostage Ingrid Betancourt from her guerrilla captors in the Colombian jungle.

Sarkozy looks more like the protagonist of a bande dessinee, a graphic novel in the style of "Tintin" than the head of a well-oiled government machine. Less than a year ago, he campaigned to be "the purchasing-power president" who would lift the French economy and get a country accustomed to 35-hour weeks back to work. He has started the ball rolling on tough reforms, including ending special retirement privileges for certain public-sector employees and making work contracts more flexible. But he has failed to deliver fully due to a penchant for dwelling on issues that are much larger (God) and smaller (taxi fares) than those he campaigned on.

On many occasions, Sarkozy speaks as France's philosopher-in-chief, leader of a staunchly secular France riffing unprovoked about "the transcendent God." On others, he sounds like the mayor of France, intervening directly on issues like petitioning UNESCO to put French gastronomy on its world heritage list. Last month he invited the tobacconist union to the Elysee Palace to discuss the prospect of allowing special smoking rooms in cafes and bars that sell cigarettes. Meanwhile, the economy he was elected to fix is seeing growth projections drop, inflation rise and consumer confidence dip to its lowest level since France started measuring it in 1987.

While France has had grandiose presidents before, the micromanager in Sarkozy is unprecedented. Normally, details are left to the prime minister, who takes the hit when things go wrong. Now, the prime minister (Francois Fillon) has a far higher approval rating than the president--66 percent compared with 41 percent--the widest gap in modern French history.

To French voters, the Sarkozy show seems increasingly self-indulgent. Since the summer, he's lost 30 points in confidence polls. Only a third of the French now say Sarkozy's work is "heading in the right direction" and 56 percent say he "poorly embodies the presidential function." Candidates for municipal elections on March 9 and March 16, to some extent a referendum on Sarkozy, didn't even invite the president to campaign with them. The Socialist opposition, in disarray after Sarkozy's national victory, is now giving his UMP party a fight even in right-wing strongholds like Marseille, and is expected to win nationwide. "Why should a laborer, or an executive in an office, who elected the guy to raise their purchasing power, care about him rescuing Betancourt?" says BVA pollster Gael Sliman. "They won't say it's bad. It might earn him a few points, but on the long term they feel it's not good that he's focusing on side issues."

Sarkozy's loose-lipped style also seems to be inspiring the circle of presidential advisers, who traditionally remain in the shadows. A handful of them are now vying with cabinet members for the spotlight, and even taking a more provocative line than Sarkozy himself. For instance, a magazine recently quoted Sarkozy's staff director and religious affairs adviser, Emmanuelle Mignon, casually dismissing the widespread perception that many cults wield a dangerous influence, raising concerns among secular French who deeply mistrust religious beliefs that fall outside the mainstream. She denied the remark, but the magazine held firm and Sarkozy was forced to reiterate his steadfastness against the perceived scourge. …