Nicolas Sarkozy, the perpetual-motion French president, has dipped significantly in the polls – to 48-percent approval – in the midst of an unusual, highly publicized new romance with supermodel-singer Carla Bruni and a likely marriage next month.
As Mr. Sarkozy is being splashed across the pages of French magazines and newspapers in the company of Ms. Bruni at Disneyland Paris and the Egyptian pyramids, he's also finding some tougher new questions about his performance, possible constraints on his promise to reform, and criticism about his jet-set image at a time when many French still feel that their economy is listing.
At his first official press conference this week at the Elysée palace in front of 600 journalists, Sarkozy sought to ameliorate the grumbling.
In fine French fashion, he set out lofty concepts over two hours about the importance of a great civilization, talked about an Internet tax, and the project of reforming the 35-hour work-week. He joked with the press for "waiting until the second question" to ask about his love life, and turned back their criticism of making his romance a Page 1 story by chiding them for sending photographers.
'The Carla effect'
French traditionally don't care, and don't want to know about, the private lives of their top office holders. Yet due to what is being called "the Carla effect," Sarkozy is losing some credit among ordinary French – a miscalculation by the palace, which is said to have hoped for a "glamour bounce."
"I think the French may be tiring of all the bling-bling," says a former adviser to French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. "Sarkozy is bling – he wears big Rolex watches, has bad shoes, and loves luxury and to flaunt it. Carla is not bling. She's old money, good clothes, comfortable in wealth. But Sarko is bling, and we're feeling it is a little too much right now."
Conservative French, the ballast of Sarkozy support, and especially older French, have not been impressed. The left, meanwhile, is critical of the symbolism of glitz when the cost of living is high.
On France Inter radio this week, the salary increase Sarkozy gave himself this fall brought a caller who said, "He got a 162 percent pay raise, and he didn't even have to go on strike."
To be sure, Sarkozy is nothing if not the first in most anything he does. He is the first youngish president in modern France, the first president from immigrant stock.
In his private affairs, he is the first divorced president coming into office and the first to be divorced in office when his wife, Cecilia, left him in September. If he marries Bruni, who formerly dated Mick Jagger, he will be the first to wed in office.
Given that President François Mitterand used to go on vacation in an official plane with his wife, and an unofficial plane with his mistress and unofficial family, Sarko is also the first to put his private life on display.
As he said Tuesday, "I would prefer not to lie about this ... Should I take two planes?"
Constraint on reform
Despite a superhuman schedule of foreign and domestic policy matters, Sarkozy may be feeling for the first time some constraints on his ability to reform by fiat.
"After eight months of cure, the Sarkozy prescription isn't working," wrote critic Laurent Joffrin in the daily Liberation this week. "Purchasing power remains as flat as a [French Prime Minister] François Fillon speech. We are now thrown toward philosophical heights ... toward a 'new Renaissance' that an inspired Socialist could have evoked. But concrete results?"
The French president may also feel some constraints on his private life. Sarkozy travels to Saudi Arabia next week and has been asked by Riyadh not to bring Bruni, according to the weekly Journal du Dimanche. Shortly after, Sarkozy goes to India, which has not restricted his entourage, but which has expressed puzzlement over Bruni's status and the protocol arrangements.
Trying his hand at philosophy
Sarkozy has often been criticized for not upholding the French president's special responsibility to outline broad concepts of ideas about civilization and civility. But on Monday, he delved into French philosopher Edgar Morin's notions of the need for less isolation, anonymity, and dehumanization, despite the problems of the brutalities of a modern technologically based state.
"If politics can't express the ideas we have of … man's freedom, of his responsibility, his dignity, then what does it express?" Sarkozy asked.
The 85-year-old Mr. Morin, asked by French reporters, responded what he thought about the press conference, "The president of the republic had 75 percent of sincerity in his words [about my ideas], and the same sincerity of tone in the other 25 percent."
Even French who don't like Sarkozy's policies admire his skill as a communicator. Yet media members are getting tougher on the president than before, as evidenced by several confrontational questions on Tuesday, something not seen so vividly during Sarkozy's campaign and subsequent office holding.
The Monitor asked some 20 top graduate journalism students in Paris were asked on Monday to choose from among four front-page news stories they would want to write about, including the budding romance of Sarkozy and Bruni – a story that has taken up many twists and turns, including descriptions of the pink, heart-shaped diamond ring Sarkozy is rumored to have given Bruni.
None of the students wanted to write on the French president's amorous adventure, and several expressed disdain.
"Most students don't feel like this is serious journalism, and they don't want to talk about something they feel Sarkozy wants to talk about, which seems designed to ignore other problems we have in France," commented Pierrick Leurent, a student at the Center for the Formation of Journalists in Paris.