Sarkozy angers French judges, chides ministers, disses multiculturalism – and sinks in polls

Despite a week of big headlines for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he's at his lowest approval rating of his presidency.

By , Staff writer

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    French Deputy Prosecutor Sylvie Pantz, third right, demonstrates with colleagues at a Paris Court, Thursday, Feb. 10, during a national protest by judges and lawyers against recent criticism by French President Nicolas Sarkozy of the legal system.
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Under the maxim that any publicity is good publicity, French president Nicolas Sarkozy gets top honors along with heavy headlines. Now if he can only get some love from the French themselves.

Today, Mr. Sarkozy has managed singlehandedly to put French judges on strike – after a typically blunt outburst that a sex offender under investigation for a grisly murder should be “presumed guilty.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s quick-fried policy this week asking officials to vacation exclusively in France filled Paris papers – after revelations that his foreign minister and prime minister recently took elite junkets in Tunisia and Egypt. And last night in a TV forum, Sarkozy played to a sizable anti-immigrant French right wing on the failure of multiculturalism.

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One might say he echoed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration of the demise of multiculturalism last week – except Sarkozy spearheaded the rhetoric last summer as France prepared to ban the burqa, the full length veil worn by devout Muslim women.

Yet for such a pot-stirring media dervish, Sarkozy is sinking in the polls. He recently cascaded to 24 percent approval, the lowest of his presidency – at a time he’s cultivating an image as an innovative force leading the G-20.

“He’s not the image of France, he’s acting common, he's not elegant,” says Francois, a Paris graduate student who voted for Sarkozy in 2007 who calls himself a Gaullist and thinks former president Jacques Chirac “is the perfect image for France. Tall, dignified, the man who can challenge the Iraq war. Sarkozy is bling-bling. But last night [in the TV forum] Sarkozy was great. Clear. Sharp. A superb communicator. But I won’t vote for him again. I think [current IMF chief and French Socialist Dominque] Strauss-Kahn is the only one with the skills for president, even if I’m not a Socialist man.”

French judges went on strike today in their flowing robes after a simmering dispute over Sarkozy’s intervention in the murder of a teenage waitress in Nantes. Police filed preliminary charges against a 31-year-old sex offender with many convictions. But under French law he was released pending clear charges.

Sarkozy used the case to criticize magistrates and the French judicial system in what his critics say is a French Willie Horton moment that panders to public sentiment and fear.

"When you let someone out of prison such as this individual who is presumed guilty, without ensuring that he will be seen by a probation officer, that is a mistake," Sarkozy said on Feb. 3. "The people who covered up or let this mistake happen will be sanctioned. Those are the rules… . Our duty is to protect society from these monsters."

"It's an old habit of [Sarkozy], using people's legitimate feelings of outrage ... for ends that are clearly electoral and demagogical," Nicolas Leger, national secretary of the USM magistrates union, told The Associated Press.

Last summer Sarkozy set off on a law and order campaign largely aimed at immigrants. It was seen as an effort to outflank the French right represented by the National Party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose daughter recently took over its reins and has been reshaping it as more attractive to a right-drifting political center.

Yet Sarkozy’s campaign, which also featured a high-profile round up of gypsies or immigrant Roma, proved deeply unpopular and he quietly abandoned the strategy. Yet Mr. Cameron’s recent speech at a Munich security forum on the “failure” of multiculturalism in Britain gave Sarkozy a chance to reiterate his concern that France needed better policies to ensure immigrants follow the French model of political and cultural assimilation and not live separately.

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