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One Horrible Year for Nicolas Sarkozy

Philip H. Gordon and Justin Vaïsse

Just over a year ago, Nicolas Sarkozy’s inauguration as president of France generated enormous excitement at home and abroad. Here was an energetic, young, new brand of politician who’d campaigned on promises of radical reform and defeated a candidate pledged to protect France’s famous—but unaffordable—welfare system. Sarkozy’s talk of a “clean break” with the past, and his solid support among French citizens, led even the most cynical observers to believe real change might be possible this time.

Perhaps we should have known better. Sarkozy’s first year turned into a bitter disappointment. After a decent start in which he helped negotiate a simplified EU treaty, helped free the Bulgarian nurses held captive in Libya and faced down striking railway workers, the new president lost his way. Reform ground to a halt. In less than 12 months, Sarkozy went from one of France’s most popular first-term presidents ever to its least popular. Fifty-eight percent of French citizens now view him unfavorably, up from 33 percent in September 2007.

To be fair, circumstances haven’t helped. Reforming a country so historically resistant to change isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone today. Since Sarkozy took office, the price of oil has more than doubled; the euro’s value against the dollar has shot off the charts (undermining French exports); rising food prices have further exacerbated the “purchasing power” problem Sarkozy pledged to solve, and a global financial crisis has curbed the economic growth he counted on to grease the wheels of reform.

Still, Sarkozy’s greatest adversary has been an unexpected one: himself. Anyone who watched his hyperactive early career knew self destruction was always a risk. But many also assumed he would mature once installed in the Elysée Palace. Instead, the French public has been subjected to an extraordinary soap opera. The president’s highly publicized divorce in itself elicited nothing more than a Gallic shrug; that was a private matter. What was anything but private, however, was the way Sarkozy then made his lifestyle—a relentless succession of yacht trips, Ray-Bans, Rolexes and vacations with his girlfriend turned wife, the singer-model Carla Bruni—the focus of his presidency. It turns out that having public fun with the rich and beautiful while voters are struggling with jobs and rising prices is not an endearing move for a politician in France. It’s no wonder his controversial reforms have stalled.

It would be easy at this point to give up on Sarkozy as a lost cause and revert to the traditional view: that France simply cannot be reformed. After all, his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, also took office as a supposedly pro-American reformer, but then quickly backed down in the face of crippling strikes.

Still, drawing such a conclusion now would be a mistake. There are still several reasons to believe Sarkozy can recover—to the long-term benefit of France. First, while the president’s popularity may have tanked, his key ministers in charge of reform—Prime Minister François Fillon, Economy Minister Christine Lagarde and Justice Minister Rachida Dati—have maintained solid public support. This suggests that public discontent with Sarkozy is personal, not policy-related. And the president’s recent decision not to appear at the Cannes Film Festival but to focus on education reform instead suggests he may be starting to get it.

Second, for all his mistakes, Sarkozy seems to favor a viable approach to reform, one that falls somewhere between a flat-out Thatcherite assault on all opposition and Chirac’s timidity in the face of the street. Compared with the revolution Sarkozy originally promised, this pragmatic approach—which involves paying off some subjects of reform, for example by financially compensating workers obliged to forfeit early retirement—may seem timid. But it’s also the only strategy that could possibly work in France. Sarkozy’s moves so far—he has liberalized the university system, streamlined the judiciary, modernized the unemployment agency and extended working hours—have all been modest. But if he can maintain this deliberate pace for the rest of his five-year term, and direct his energies toward trade unions, the labor market, health care and defense, he just might wind up with a respectable record in the end.

Finally, he stands to profit from a bit of calendar luck. From July to December of this year, France will hold the EU’s rotating presidency, and in January 2009 Sarkozy will get to welcome a U.S. president and inaugurate a new era in transatlantic relations. Sarkozy is well positioned to capitalize on the change in Washington; the only two senators he met on a September 2006 trip to the United States were Barack Obama and John McCain.

All that said, Sarkozy’s efforts to change France could still end in tears. But given his political talents, his relentless energy and the stakes involved, it would be a big mistake to write him off.

This article was originally published with the title “Une Année Horrible”.

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