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Sarkozy saga distracts from France's reform

His latest faux pas – a new hit on YouTube – comes as his approval rating slips to 36 percent.

By Staff writer / February 27, 2008


With Nicolas Sarkozy's ratings down, a trip to an agricultural fair to mingle with salt-of-the-earth French people makes good political sense. Unless their president blasts one of them in a fit of vulgarity, which he did.

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"Buzz off, you idiot," is a charitable translation of what Mr. Sarkozy said to a man in the crowd who refused to shake his hand – a moment that hit top YouTube views in a run-up to local elections here.

In France, the amazing Sarkozy saga continues, as his approval rating falls like an ill-prepared cake. Only 36 percent of French people now support their dynamic president, who many joke is more popular in the US and Britain, than in France itself. But there's also a debate starting about whether his foreign relations may be the next to take a blow.

Rather than covering Sarkozy's efforts to reform France and improve its standing on the world stage, however, the French media are focused on how such a formidable politician, whose strength is public relations, can make so many damaging gaffes and inexplicable miscalculations in his own promotion.

In recent weeks Sarkozy has veered from one PR crisis to another – retreated in a fight over taxi reform, sued a well-regarded magazine that published a text message he allegedly sent his former wife, fired a loyal spokesman, and ordered that each 10-year-old pupil in public school study a child lost in the Holocaust – dividing educators, intellectuals, and the French Jewish community.

With approval ratings in a free fall, Sarkozy abruptly addressed the nation last week. But many French tuning in failed to detect a crisis, other than Sarkozy's own. This week, the farm-show outburst – too vulgar to translate even for the French press – is sharing headlines with French film star Marion Cotillard, who won best actress at the Oscars on Sunday.

(Sarkozy Monday stopped short of an apology for blasting a member of the farm crowd who said he didn't want to get "dirty" by touching Sarkozy. "Just because you are president doesn't mean you become a doormat," Sarkozy told a forum in Le Parisien. "That said, I would have done better not to reply to him.")

Last spring, Sarkozy's thunderous promise was to create "la rupture" in France – reform the socialist economy, shake the bureaucracy, put the stick about. Now, la rupture itself is in danger of rupturing, with French who voted for him grumbling they don't see much change. One of few dramatic reversals is a successful Jan. 1 ban on smoking in cafes and restaurants – a plan Sarkozy inherited.