(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/04/ARV_SARKOZY_275688f.jpg)When he was first elected president in 2007, besting his Socialist challenger Segolene Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy boasted a political appeal that transcended party lines. Though technically the “conservative” candidate, he won even traditionally blue-collar voters that leaned left.
Five years on, that crossover appeal seems like a distant memory. While opinions of Sarkozy still cross party lines, what binds them now is popular dissatisfaction with his tenure. Thus Sarkozy’s disappointing showing in the first round of presidential voting this Sunday, which saw him come in second behind his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande. With the deciding May 6th runoff looming, Sarkozy’s days may be numbered.
No small share of the damage has been self-inflicted. For instance, much of the early goodwill was sacrificed immediately after Sarkozy’s 2007 election, when he chose to celebrate his win in the company of an exclusive entourage at a ritzy restaurant on the Chaps Elysées. The choice of venue, for which Sarkozy later expressed regret, earned him the moniker of being the “bling bling president” and an attendant reputation for flash and opulence, a particularly radioactive combination at time when the country faces tough economic times. It hardly bolstered Sarkozy’s common-man appeal that, soon after, he went through a high-profile divorce, leaving his wife Cecelia Ciganer to marry the Italian-born super model Carla Bruni. In recent days, he has struck a remorseful pose, apologizing for not “understanding the symbolic dimension of the president’s role and not being solemn enough in my acts.” But that may be too little too late.
If Sarkozy did not live up to the symbolic demands of the French presidency, neither did he make good on many of his policy promises. Elected on what by French standards was a relatively free-market, conservative platform, Sarkozy has not governed that way. Despite modest reforms like raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, Sarkozy has largely broken promises to grow the economy, trim France’s bloated public sector, and embrace fiscal discipline.
To the contrary, he has launched a number of dubious and expensive spending programs. Rather than reforming the country’s generous welfare system, he has relied on debt to sustain it. He also passed a $26 billion stimulus to prop up the French car industry and fund projects like high-speed trains. That was preceded by a $25 billion strategic investment fund to “protect” French industry from foreign takeovers. And the debt goes on. Sarkozy has promised to take out an additional $52 billion “grand loan” that would be invested in green technologies and a “gigantic campus” for a new university in a Paris suburb.
The benefits of this massive borrowing and spending spree have been far from obvious. French unemployment is now at a 13-year high of almost 10 percent, while public debt has spiked to 90 percent of France’s annual output – up from 64 percent as recently as 2007. Sarkozy is still commonly described as “right-wing” in the foreign press, but there is nothing specifically conservative about his policy agenda. Those who backed him in 2007 based on his promises of economic reform feel understandably betrayed.
They’re not the only ones. In France’s fractured electorate, aversion to Sarkozy for his real and imagined sins now seems to be the closest thing to a national unifier, notes Michel Gurfinkiel, president of the Jean Jacques Rousseau Institute, a Paris-based European think tank. “The Left hates him for being (or pretending to be) a supporter of supply-side economics. Rightwing nationalists and Leftwing anti-globalists hate him for being a cosmopolite, a Jew (allegedly), and an Atlantist. Immigrants hate him for opposing illegal immigration, Muslims for being a Zionist (allegedly),” Gurfinkiel told Front Page.
Bleak as things are, not all is lost for Sarkozy. The silver lining in the first round of voting may be the surprisingly strong third-place showing of the far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. If National Front’s voters switch their support to Sarkozy on the second ballot, Sarkozy could be reelected by a narrow margin. That outcome is not assured, however. Polls suggest that a large number of Le Pen’s supporters will abstain in the second round rather than support Sarkozy or Hollande. As one National Front adviser pungently put it, choosing between Hollande and Sarkozy would be like “voting for the plague or cholera.”
Grumbling aside, the choice is still a significant one. As much as Sarkozy has fallen short of expectations, Hollande could be even worse. For one thing, his political platform is decidedly radical. As well as backing a monthly minimum wage in excess of $2,200, Hollande is calling for a reversal of the 62-year retirement age, and a confiscatory 75 percent top income rate. And while that might seem like the stuff of unreconstructed socialist fantasy, Hollande would have a good chance of implementing it. Michel Gurfinkiel notes that if Hollande is elected president, the socialist left will likely also sweep the National Assembly in elections one month later. France would then have a socialist president, a socialist Assembly, a socialist Senate, socialist administrations in almost all provinces, and socialist mayors in most big cities. It would be a “one-party country,” Gurfinkiel says. “There would be no breaks on the Left whatsoever.”
In the days ahead, Sarkozy will have to find some way to rally an electorate that doesn’t seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His best argument may be that, bad as he has been for France, the alternative would be worse still.
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