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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Sarkozy, boulet de la droite?

by Rosa Moussaoui

French President Sarkozy: a Millstone Around his Party’s Neck?

Translated Thursday 14 February 2008, by Isabelle Métral

As the President’s party, the Union for the Popular Movement (UMP), is preparing itself for defeat in the oncoming local elections, all the initiatives taken by the President with a view to limiting losses seem to boomerang against him.

In the face of a storm it is not always easy to keep cool. A reassuring episode in British political history is common talk among those closest to the president: Margaret Thatcher’s record unpopularity in the thick of her trial of strength with the miners in 1984, so the story goes within the presidential palace, did not prevent her from winning the 1987 election. To them this is proof that Sarkozy’s dramatic fall in the opinion polls even among his staunch supporters is due to the policy he is carrying through and not just to the man’s “style” or to the publicity he gives to his private life, as is openly asserted in Rightist circles.

UMP militants and candidates are in a panic for they find that the crisis is far from being a mere skin-deep reaction from fickle voters. “To focus the presidential campaign on the promise to increase purchasing power was bad strategy,” Jacques Le Guen a Breton deputy from Finistère observes regretfully. On November 30, 2007, in a TV program “A vous de juger” (The case is yours to decide) on the public channel France 2, Nicolas Sarkozy was adamant on this point: “The question of wage rises must be taken up in this country because all my economic strategy follows from that.” The assertion was hammered in all manner of tones for months on end. Now French people send it straight back to him. As they sent back to Jacques Chirac his soon-forgotten pre-election promise in 1995 to “close the social divide”.

“Resilience” is an obsession now with the president and his advisers. But there is a hitch: the communications and public image ploys that he has been heavily relying on seem pathetically inadequate to meet the distrust that began to set in no later than the day after the presidential election. A month had not gone by since Sarkozy’s victory before official talk about creating a “social VAT” cost several dozen UMP incumbents their seats. Then came the episode of the tax-cut package which was seen as a trick meant to serve the interests of the richest. The distrust has been aggravated since by the public display of the luxurious life-style of a president that just could not wait to grant himself a staggering pay-rise.

Then came the round of stringent neo-liberal “reforms” on all fronts, each and every of which raised protests, from rail-workers, public workers, students, barristers, judges, teachers, artists, super-market workers, and even taxi-drivers… After only nine months the list sounds like one of the French poet Prévert’s famously humorous inventories.

Today, each fresh attempt by the president to try and “rebound” seems to drag him further down. The refrain about the “self-apparent lessons” of reforms supposedly about to bear their fruits will simply no longer go down. Worse still, it threatens to boomerang against the self-styled professors, as happened with the 2005 referendum when a no was returned against the European constitution. The much publicized self-satisfaction over the “re-launching of Europe” can hardly dispel the widely shared feeling among voters that they were made fools of when choice was made of the parliamentary process to ratify the Lisbon treaty even though the European Constitutional Treaty had been rejected in the 2005 referendum. The scarecrows used to distract voters’ attention from their empty purses, namely “safety” and the fear of immigrants, are now inoperative. The twice weekly ”field calls” and factory floor visits promised by Nicolas Sarkozy from the moment he comes back from his trip to French Guyana appear to be artificially staged for electoral purposes.

In such a context, the initiatives that the head of state took last week fell flat one after another. The plan for the suburbs, which was first presented as being no less than a Marshall plan, was greeted with scepticism even among the ranks of the ruling party: it carries no price tag, no financial commitment. The president’s promise to rescue the Arcilor-Mittal steel plant in Toul by mobilizing public funds if necessary (especially local ones) is foredoomed by the European prescriptions to which Sarkozy himself assented when he signed the Lisbon treaty. No wonder the case has caused discontent at the topmost levels and feeds rumours of the Economy and Finance minister’s resignation: Christine Lagarde is opposed to all manner of “subsidy” on principle and is convinced that “an industrialist cannot be forced to invest.” The resulting confusion at the top undermines the promise made public on Thursday of a “global re-industrialization plan” of the Toul Kléber tyre plant, also in a fix. This shows up the lack of a serious industrial policy even as the disastrous consequences of the financial crisis on the real economy make themselves increasingly felt.

Beyond the absence of a real debate on economic choices, the muddled, disjointed, incomprehensible announcements by the head of state are a big cause of worry for right-wing politicians. After the blunt refusal (to raise wages) given on January 8 on the plea of “empty coffers”, criticism came thick and fast on all sides over how the minimal nudge to be given to old age pensions was going to be financed. The news that the proposed liberalization of the taxi-drivers’ trade was dropped appeared like an about-turn. All in all this opportunistic, haphazard political comportment, which turns its back on the notion of public interest appears in a crude light as being nothing but a pre-electoral distribution of bribes designed to limit the losses predicted in the next local elections.

So it is that for the first time under the fifth Republic a President has lost all credibility only nine months after being elected… This unprecedented fact shows how deep the political crisis is, how lasting it is going to be. To which the spokesman for the presidential palace David Martinon replies confidently that “He still has five years before him to make the reforms he submitted to the French people and for the realization of which they gave him a clear majority.” Obviously, like Margaret Thatcher in her time, Nicolas Sarkozy is willing to satisfy those that urge him to complete at all costs the conservative revolution that daily degrades the condition of the suffering underdogs (“la France qui souffre”) who he said during the campaign were uppermost in his mind.

The suffering underdogs look set to make him pay on March 9th for a bill of “reforms” aimed solely at further enriching the richest.

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