Sarkozy and the French people: the end of the honeymoon?

Elected brilliantly in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy is already in difficulty, as the unfavourable opinion polls and the losses in the regional and municipal elections recently show. What exactly are his people criticising him for? His style more that his policies. Reporting by Florence Maitre.

Let us take a recent opinion poll, a poll by IFOP-Paris-Match [1]:

Nicolas Sarkozy received 44% of favourable opinions against 63% for his Prime Minister, Francois Fillon.

According to the French Constitution, the President usually plays the role of umpire, above the political fray. A Prime Minister more popular than the President, that is the sign that something is changing as Pierre Mazet, a political scientist explains:

What is very surprising with Nicolas Sarkozy is that he has changed the conception, the role of the President of the Republic. He has a conception very much bound to that of duties, that is to say that in fact the President is not just an umpire, far from it. It is the President who decides, who settles things. That relegates a bit to the second level, the personality, the role of the Prime Minister who, after all, according to the Constitution, directs and drives the politics of the nation; we are far from that. We really feel that the driving power is in the Elysee [2] and not in the Matignon [3]. We really see that this President is not only always present on the international stage, but he is always present in French politics. Is this going to last? We do not know because it is perhaps also one of the messages from the municipal and regional elections, that in effect this “President-Prime Minister”, this super President “American style” is perhaps not exactly a style of President that the French people were expecting.

The Rolex watches, the Ray-Ban sunglasses, the vacations on luxury yachts… That is a bit like that, the Sarkozy style, quite a change from that of his predecessors, [who were] more restrained, in any case in appearance.

So with Carla, we decided not to lie. We don’t want to take advantage of anything, but we didn’t want to hide ourselves. I didn’t want someone to take my photograph in the early hours of the morning: how sordid!

He tripled his salary. He said at the beginning “Personally, I am trebling my salary”. That was a totally indecent act, it was an act of complete disrespect for the people who are on basic wages, who are in the low income category, average [income] category, I think that it was a completely indecent act to triple his salary! Already a salary… the salary before was good but for him, no, that did not please him, so he tripled it! I think that that was a complete lack of propriety in relation to… millions of people; that represents really millions of people. Even those who voted for him will be washing their hands of him not before too long.

That was a bit disappointing, some thing in his life, now, well, I think that now the euphoria has gone, that he is going to pull himself together and he is going to bring us some good news.

Were you expecting a lot from him?

Yes, what he had promised. Yes, yes, what he had promised. He is certainly someone very competent. He gives all the same… he gives all the same the appearance of being someone very serious of being very… in his behaviour, of someone who… at the beginning, it was just that. Afterwards, well, there were many extravagancies. Now, I hope that he is going to pull himself together a bit and he is going to take up the reigns again like at the time when he was elected, as then, when he spoke it was really very consistent, so personally I am very hopeful.

Oh, it is a all a bit of rubbish! And then, well, in my opinion it’s going to go on like that.

Is it not what you expect from a President? What is it that’s bothering you?

I think that he has to be perhaps a bit more serious and not, for example, watching his telephone non stop, or his watch!

And his private life, does that inspire you?

He does what he wants to, but fine, we don’t care. So well… while he is doing all this in his own place, and he’s leaving us alone.

For the French people, the private life of the President has remained secret for a long time. Francois Mitterrand [5] for example had a daughter out of marriage, but the journalists kept the secret [about it] for years.

When we found the photographs of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni on the front pages of the newspapers last December, it was a new break with the past. Pierre Mazet:

I think that Nicolas Sarkozy has been very influenced by Tony Blair in the art of government and in the art of communication and the communication consultants who used to work for Tony Blair used to tell him that it was necessary to create the news by any means whatsoever. I think that the political use that he has made of his private life is a way of occupying the front of the stage and of having [people] talk about him, or relegating to the second level, other problems.

In March, in the Salon d’Agriculture [6], Nicolas Sarkozy is shaking hands.

Suddenly a visitor rejects him:

No, No! Don’t touch me. You will make me dirty!

Shove off then, poor jerk!

Shove off poor jerk. Surprising words on the lips of the Head of State. Jean-Francois Achilli, a political journalist has followed Nicolas Sarkozy for many years for the radio station France Inter.

It is true that you could criticise the President of the Republic for his outbursts of language, his ready use of “tu”, his way of speaking sharply on the spot to those who have just contradicted him. At the same time it is what the French people have been looking for, so that we wonder what’s next. Has he gone too far, not far enough? Is he too populist? Is he too close to the people? Personally, I think that the French people want some change but are not so keen on being too shaken up. They really want a little distance. It is necessary that – historically it was the Vth Republic [7] which wanted it, these are the institutions – that the President is even a bit in the background, a bit above things. We will see in the next few weeks if Nicolas Sarkozy starts to keep his distance. He started a bit to get it going, to do it whilst on his symbolic visit to the plateau of Glieres [8]. It is true that we can criticize him for his outbursts of [bad] language. That is his personality; it is what has also, paradoxically, contributed to his success, for his election as President.

The deputies [9] of the President’s party and the advisors of the President have been pulling the alarm bell for a long time. Nicolas Sarkozy absolutely must change his image. A change which is starting with a journey to London.

The idea, if you like, was to wait till the period following the municipal [elections], the first official Presidential tour, symbolically to the United Kingdom. They receive the President with due pomp and circumstance, with extremely strict protocol (it is the protocol, with that of Japan, the most strict in the world) to give a more Presidential image of Nicolas Sarkozy, who came to power in effect at the same time as Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, now fully engaged with the business of the world, in the context of the French Presidency of the [European] Union. So what we have seen, really before our very eyes, is the President of the Republic at work. He is the future President of the European Union, but even then, the personality was very quickly on its way back. Certainly he did not make any errors of taste in what is expected in protocol. He did not touch the elbow of the Queen, he did not embrace her. In short, the Nicolas Sarkozy whom we saw in London was truly the President of the Republic, but in the end, not letting go of what he is, in the end he is what he is, always playful with the press, always putting his wife in the spotlight. So the question is to know if, in the end, things are changing. For my taste, they are changing very little. He is trying to give the appearance of greater stature but I believe that perhaps his real nature is going to come back quickly at the gallop because that is his personality.

Only time will tell. And from the month of June, all of Europe will have its eyes set on Nicolas Sarkozy who will no longer be only President of France, but for six months, President of the European Union.

[1] IFOP – Public polling organisation

[2] Elysee Palace – the home of the President

[3] Hotel Matignon – the home of the Prime Minister

[4] Carla – the President recently divorced Cecilia Sarkozy and married Carla Bruni

[5] Francois Mitterrand – President of France, 1981-1995

[6] Salon d’Agriculture – Important agriculture show held annually in Paris in February/March

[7] Vth Republic – The present Constitution of the French people, created in 1958

[8] Glieres – Site of the final battle between the French resistance and the German army of occupation during the Second World War

[9] Deputies – Members of the National Assembly, similar to Congressmen in the US, or Members of Parliament in the UK

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