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Sombre mood greets Sarkozy's first year in office

Latest update : 2008-05-06

French president Nicolas Sarkozy marks his first year in office on Tuesday, with latest polls chopping another four points out of his plummeting approval rating to put it at an all-time low of 36 percent. (Report: E.Irvine)

Nicolas Sarkozy prepared to mark his first year as French president on Tuesday, battered by a disastrous fall in popularity that risks undermining his drive to transform France.
  
The 53-year-old Sarkozy has begun many of the reforms he promised, but his failure to deliver on his key pledge to boost spending power for the French has helped make him the country's most unloved president in decades.
  
The right-winger saw his approval rating slide another four points to 36 percent, according to an LH2 poll released Monday, with 53 percent of respondents saying they would back his Socialist rival Segolene Royal for president if given the chance to vote again.
  
Francois Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party, told Le Parisien newspaper that Sarkozy "was elected on this promise, he did not keep it and the French are suffering the consequences every day."
  
When Sarkozy was elected last May 6, the world watched expectantly to see if he would deliver on his reform promises or, like his predecessor Jacques Chirac, back down in the face of street protests.
  
The French gave him opinion poll ratings as high as 67 percent in his first months in power and watched with fascination as their new leader kept up a frenetic pace that earned him the nickname of "hyperpresident."
  
But they soon grew disillusioned, especially when the president's private life -- his divorce from his wife Cecilia in October and subsequent marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni -- seemed to take up more of his energy than solving the country's problems.
  
"Even people who were ardently pro-Sarkozy are furious, terribly disappointed, they feel he wasted his victory," said political analyst Jean-Luc Parodi, predicting the global financial crisis and unpopular reforms would keep Sarkozy in negative ratings for the foreseeable future.
  
Despite all this, "his track record is not to be underestimated even if the French aren't convinced," said Philippe Braud, a professor at the Sciences Po institute in Paris.
  
He pointed to Sarkozy's easing of France's 35-hour work week, the shortest in Europe, his reduction of pension benefits for state workers, and his reform of the country's impoverished and overcrowded universities.
  
"Sarkozy had the courage to do what other presidents didn't," said Braud.
  
The president has also streamlined France's notoriously complicated labour laws, Braud noted, and under his watch unemployment has fallen to 7.5 percent, its lowest level in two decades.
  
But polls show it was his failure to raise the standard of living that has most damaged his popularity.
  
Sarkozy last month admitted his government could have done more to explain its reforms. But he faulted high oil and food prices, the strong euro and the world financial crisis for the lack of improvement in living standards since his election.
  
He also reaffirmed his commitment to modernising the French economy.
  
But Parodi warned that Sarkozy's "unpopularity will damage his reform project."
  
After Sarkozy's UMP party was trounced in March local elections, the president embarked on an image makeover to become more "presidential" and end a lifestyle perceived as flamboyant.
  
"He's telling the French he has understood the message," said Roland Cayrol of the CSA polling institute. "Now he needs to show he has changed his behaviour so that people think the new Sarkozy has arrived."
  
Cayrol said the president has an important factor in his favour: "He has no real opposition."
  
The Socialists are riven by infighting and appear more focused on deciding on who their next leader will be than offering an alternative to Sarkozy's policies.

Date created : 2008-05-06

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