French President Nicolas Sarkozy – love him or hate him? The referendum election
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No one would dispute that Nicolas Sarkozy has stamped his considerable personality on the French presidency in a way few other presidents have.
On the world stage, he is admired for his energy and ability to take control in a crisis, but also criticised for his abrasive style and tendency to claim credit too readily.
Back at home in France, he is a polarising figure who seems to attract fervent support or passionate rejection, and by 2008, a year after his election, he had plummeted to almost record levels of unpopularity.
The favourite in the upcoming presidential elections, François Hollande, is so sure the French hate Sarkozy, that he has turned the election into a virtual referendum on the incumbent president.
So what is it about Sarkozy?
The French knew more or less what they were getting when they voted for him in 2007.
This is the man who made his name at 28 by becoming one of the youngest-ever French mayors, winning the post in the wealthy Neuilly suburb of Paris in 1983.
Ten years later, he hit the headlines when a deranged man strapped a bomb to himself and took a class of children hostage in a state-run Neuilly nursery school.
The minister of the interior at the time monitored events from the comfort of his Paris office.
Not Mayor Sarkozy. With his trademark hands-on approach, he went straight to the school and personally negotiated with the man who became known as the 'human bomb', finally emerging from the school building with a child in his arms.
His supporters say he showed immense personal courage, a cool head in a crisis. His detractors suggest a headline-grabbing stunt.
Nearly twenty years later the drama is rarely mentioned but it was an early illustration of pure Sarkozy – and many conclude that he is at his best in a crisis. (Even his critics applauded his handling of the recent tragedies in Toulouse and Montauban.)
He was later budget minister, minister of finance and interior minister, and with each job he dealt with situations head-on and rarely shied away from a challenge.
Ooh la la – son style!
But the same direct approach has caused him huge image problems.
Many French people loathe what they see as his self-promoting style and even worse, feel that he has compromised the office of the presidency.
Some commentators insist Sarkozy badly misunderstood the French people when he took office in 2007.
He thought they were ready for a more American-style president. He allowed himself to be photographed in jogging attire running up the steps of the Elysées after a morning run, hoping to convey the image of a youngish, modern president who was more like ordinary people.
The French thought it tasteless and undignified.
And it is hard to overstate the impact of one apparently monumental error of taste he made in the early days of his presidency.
Immediately after winning the vote, following a gruelling election campaign, Sarkozy and his campaign team held a celebration party at the extremely expensive Fouquets restaurant on the Champs Elysées. He then accepted a three-day holiday on the yacht of French millionaire Vincent Bolloré, with family and friends, where he was filmed swimming in the Mediterranean and wearing sunglasses.
The French were appalled. They like their presidents dignified, reserved and slightly monarchical. Sarkozy had dragged them into a Hollywood-style soap opera which they found showy and vulgar.
The images dogged his presidency and for some, became symbolic of an innate unsuitability for high office.
As well as images there were words....
On a visit to the Paris Agriculture Show, when a bystander said he did not wish to be dirtied by being touched by Sarkozy, the President reacted angrily and with obscene language, telling the man to “get lost”, casse-toi pauvre con.
The exchange was put on Youtube and Sarkozy has never recovered from the damage to his reputation.
He is also often criticised for a tendency to mangle his syntax – previous French presidents have been more comfortable with even the more complicated aspects of French grammar.
- Leadership role in helping Libyan rebels overthrow Moamer Kadhafi
- French forces helped force Côte d'Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo out, after he lost UN-monitored vote
- Mediated compromise in Russia-Georgia conflict while France held rotating EU presidency
- Slow to realise importance of Arab Spring revolts.
- Sarkozy ministers too cosy with outgoing dictatorships
- Restored French influence in Nato but the alliance still bogged down in unpopular Afghanistan war
- Played major role in reforming EU governing structures in 2007 Lisbon Treaty, but these structures proved inadequate to prevent eurozone debt crisis.
- Sarkozy began his mandate with plans to relax the criteria for home loans in a bid to kick-start the housing market – dropped the idea when banking crisis hit in 2008.
- Won plaudits in 2008 for determined defence of French lenders, which all more or less survived global banking crisis.
- Tough time in 2011, amid doubts about sovereign debts of eurozone countries. EU eventually stepped in to bail out its poorest member, but battle to negotiate fiscal pact exposed underlying divisions between France and Germany – and highlighted German dominance
- France lost triple A rating, which Sarkozy had been desperate to keep.
- In 2007 Sarkozy promised to cut unemployment figure to 5 per cent. Instead it has risen to 10per cent, and around 22 per cent among young people. Sarkozy claims the financial crisis which originated outside France hampered efforts to cut unemployment and that France has fared better than comparable countries, but the jobless rate is close to the EU average and much higher than Germany’s 5.8 per cent.
Immigration and citizenship
- Created highly controversial “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity”
- His government launched disastrous town hall debates on National Identity, which were mostly either boycotted or hijacked by extremists.
- Changed rules – easier immigration for people working in sectors with unfilled jobs, harder for family members to join immigrants in France. (The immigrant must now show proof of income and accommodation.)
- Immigration figures remain at around 200,000 per year.
- Highly publicised expulsion to Romania of Roms in illegal settlements
- Introduced “French values” test and basic language test for those seeking French citizenship. Backed formal ceremonies in local towns for foreigners granted French citizenship.
- Sarkozy faced down labour protests to impose increase in minimum retirement age for state pension from 60 to 62, relatively modest reform by EU standards but significant political victory.
- Imposed minimum service rule for public transport strikes
- Banned burka (full face-covering muslim veil) in public places
- Introduced Internats d’Excellence – weekly boarding centres for children who are motivated but unable to do homework at home, often targeted at children from deprived estates on outskirts of large cities. They have support from staff in the evenings but attend local state-run schools and return home at weekends.
- Successfully overcame resistance to give state universities independence, but operating budgets stagnated.
As with most presidents before him, there have been allegations of involvement in improper party financing, (particularly the the so-called Karachi affair and the Liliane de Bettencourt case.)
His decision to allow his son, Jean, a 23-year-old student and local councillor at the time, to try to take charge of a powerful public development agency in the La Défense business district appears particularly ill-judged. In the face of huge public disapproval, Jean in the end backed down.
All in all, Sarkozy does not leave you cold.
In the next two weeks, the French people will decide whether they want him to steer the ship decisively through future stormy waters, or whether they want to see the back of him for good.
The man himself is increasingly confident that while the Parisian chattering classes who dominate press and television will never forgive his errors of taste and personal style, ordinary people care much less. He’s betting that they prize his qualities instead.
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