Curtain closes on ‘unpopular’ Sarkozy presidency
France’s outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in May 2007 on a promise to change French politics, but his approval rating soon sank as the French grew to dislike his brash behaviour and extravagant style.
Outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy is leaving office as one of the most unpopular presidents in France’s history and with the unwelcome distinction of being only the second French head of state to fail to win re-election since World War Two.
Sarkozy, who has suggested he will quit politics when he steps down on May 15, has kept a low profile and avoided encounters with the media in the last days of his five-year mandate.
The subdued finale has contrasted sharply with the boisterous presence that people have grown to expect – and to dislike.
“Sarkozy’s approval rating went through several different phases, but it was often under 30% and taken as a whole was the lowest we’ve recorded for any [French] president,” said Eric Bonnet, head of opinion surveys for the French polling firm BVA.
Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” style was not the only thing the French loved to loathe. Many disillusioned voters felt Sarkozy had failed to deliver on campaign promises and that several of the reforms he championed, such as pushing the retirement age from 60 to 62 years and offering tax breaks to France’s wealthy, were unjust.
The outgoing president also failed to deliver on his twin promises to clean up corruption from government and to get people back to work.
“Unemployment has gone up to 10% and the Bettencourt affair eventually blew up in his face,” said RFI journalist Philippe Turle, referring to a sprawling scandal involving allegations of illegal payments by L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to members of the French government.
Roller coaster ride
Sarkozy started his mandate in May 2007 with an approval rating of around 60%, but he took a dive in early 2008 and never fully recovered. “He was elected on his capacity to change things and obtain results,” BVA’s Bonnet said. “It was during a press conference in January 2008 that he made it clear he couldn’t solve every problem. That’s when things changed.”
During the two-hour press conference Sarkozy notoriously told hundreds of journalists gathered at the Elysée Palace in Paris that he had other concerns besides raising the minimum wage and “emptying the state’s coffers, which incidentally have already been emptied”.
It was at the same meeting that Sarkozy told reporters that his relationship with model and singer Carla Bruni was “serious”. Sarkozy and Bruni were married a month later, but his whirlwind romance with the celebrity failed to impress French voters.
France’s “hyper-president” rebounded in opinion polls later that year thanks to his foreign policy, a field he obviously enjoyed more than any other.
He earned plaudits for his role in ending a brief war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, as well as for his activism in dealing with the financial meltdown that followed the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers soon after.
However, those successes failed to make up for his failures on the one issue that really mattered to the French: the economy.
“French people rediscovered the image of the conquering Sarkozy who wanted to fight on every front,” said Bonnet. “But they progressively found a president who couldn’t do much in response to the country’s problems.”
Sarkozy’s approval rating hit rock bottom in October 2010, slumping to an abysmal 28%.
A different kind of president
Sarkozy helped reinvent certain aspects of French political life, but not in a way that endeared him to voters.
His closeness to wealthy French industrialists and a handful of unforgettable outbursts in public were widely perceived as unbecoming of a French president.
Perhaps the most infamous moment came at the 2008 agriculture show in Paris, when Sarkozy told a heckling farmer to “get lost, you loser”. Caught on camera, the insult hounded the president throughout his tenure.
Three years later, as Socialist rival François Hollande launched his campaign for the presidency with a pledge to restore “normality” to France’s highest office, Sarkozy sought to make amends for past slips.
During an increasingly desperate campaign for re-election, the “bling-bling” president expressed regret for the exchange at the agriculture show as well as other unpopular moves.
While the eleventh-hour repentance was not enough to win him a second term, analysts say the outgoing president may yet find the popularity he craved for throughout his five years in office.
“One year ago we asked people to qualify Sarkozy’s mandate as either good or bad. At the time 63% of people said it was bad. The same survey last week found that only half of all people thought it was negative,” said Bonnet, adding that it was “typical” for outgoing French presidents to rise in popularity after they handed over power.
RFI’s Turle agreed: “French people are extremely nostalgic of the past. President [François] Mitterand and [Jacques] Chirac were unpopular when they left office, but then became very popular. Sarkozy is next in line for that phenomenon, but it’s still too early.”