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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.

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Somewhat lost in the Sarkozy saga – which includes a whirlwind courtship and marriage to supermodel Carla Bruni – is how the president has ended France's diplomatic isolation, and his skill in bringing a wide range of figures, even opposition party members, into his cabinet.

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But that's not curbing widespread chat in the newly smoke-free cafes.

"I just want him to stop talking for a few weeks, and do something," says Christophe, who lives in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, a traditional Sarkozy stronghold.

"He's talking too fast, and not really thinking enough," says a former Palace adviser. "He threw out ideas on Shoah [Holocaust], a deeply sensitive issue, the same way he would talk about a problem of industry. He's talking about bombs and Iran [in an August speech to French diplomats] too easily."

Some analysts say that low approval ratings can be salutary. Sarkozy's "rupture" was too ambitious, they argue, and French must face this. To do so may force Sarkozy to fight for reform from a more realistic standpoint, they say.

Meanwhile, Franco-German relations continue to decline over a perception that Sarkozy is not consultative enough; he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have very different styles and approaches. French initiatives on a Mediterranean Union have proceeded with little German input, sources say. According to political commentator Bernard Getta, the midlevel working lunches traditionally held between the Germans and French keep being postponed.

One career Socialist now working in Sarkozy's government says that Sarkozy's domestic image isn't relevant in foreign affairs. But he adds a plump caveat: "He [Sarkozy] is a good leader; he can mobilize the party well. I don't care about the daily mistakes, if he shouts at someone. But we are starting to worry about his concept of Europe. How well is he bringing France into Europe, and how strong is his concept of international relations as he negotiates hard details? This we are worrying about."

Analysts say the Elysée Palace is losing political leverage as the indefatigable Sarkozy's glitzy persona seems to clash in the media and the French mind with the job he was elected for.

Currently, for example, Sarkozy is defending an order that French officials override a constitutional court's authority on treatment of multiple-offender criminals. Yet this serious issue plays second media fiddle an upcoming court appearance of Cécilia Sarkozy, who divorced Sarkozy last fall, in a libel suit brought by Mr. Sarkozy. The first of its kind by a French president, it targets Le Nouvel Observateur magazine, which published a text message which they alleged he had written to his ex-wife days before his recent marriage to Ms. Bruni. It said, "If you come back, I'll cancel it all."