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

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.

"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.

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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.

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.

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."

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