Sarkozy has little to cheer about after 12 months

Just one year after he was elected with a comfortable majority, Nicolas Sarkozy has seen his popularity drop to record lows. He will seek to turn the tide in his favour on Thursday in an interview on French television. (Story: France 3, C.Moore)


Lagging in the polls, President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing to defend his record in office this week afer a first tumultuous year disappointed French voters.

A new poll published Sunday showed 79 percent feel their lives have not improved in the past year since Sarkozy took over while only 36 percent separately said they approved of his performance.

Struggling to seize back momentum, Sarkozy is to give a prime-time 90-minute interview on Thursday on French television that is billed as a key opportunity for the president to turn the tide in public opinion.

Oddly enough, many of Sarkozy's woes have recently come from within his own camp, with ministers engaging in public bickering and forced to backtrack on a highly unpopular plan to scrap subsidized discounts on train tickets for large families.

Along with much of Europe, France is facing a gloomy economic outlook that significantly reduces Sarkozy's room to manoeuvre as he seeks to bring in the sweeping reforms he promised in his election campaign last year.

Former prime minister Edouard Balladur, a member of Sarkozy's governing party, said much had been done in a year but that the government needed to set clear priorities, which in turn would be better understood by French voters.

"Rarely has so much been done in so little time," Balladur said in an interview to Le Journal du Dimanche weekly.

"I don't think that the French are disappointed. But the world financial situation is difficult: growth is receding, affecting the vitality of our economy. This is what worries the French."

The government this month rolled out a 166-point deficit reduction plan to trim seven billion euros (11 billion dollars) in spending by 2011 as French consumers felt the sting from inflation rates now at their highest level since the 1990s.

In poll after poll, the French have listed spending power as their number one concern, replacing unemployment which had been the nation's number one economic obsession for decades.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who is vying to lead the Socialist opposition against Sarkozy and ranks as France's most popular politician, suggested the government was at a loss to deal with the constraints of the difficult economic climate.

Describing government ministers as amateurs, Delanoe said Sarkozy's team "was wasting the nation's time and discouraging the French."

"This government doesn't know where it is going but it is dragging France with it," Delanoe told Le Parisien newspaper.

French high school students have been staging street protests in Paris over the past three weeks against a government plan to cut 11,200 education jobs, part of an overall drive to scale back the public service by not replacing some retiring staff.

On the foreign policy front, Sarkozy has been accused of cozying up to the United States by taking France back to NATO's integrated command and talking tough on Iran's suspect nuclear programme.

But perhaps the most noticeable shift in the Elysee has been Sarkozy's metamorphosis from the whirlwind "hyperactive" presidency of the early days to the more staid, statesmanlike image that he is now projecting.

The 53-year-old right-winger also divorced his second wife Cecilia and married supermodel and singer Carla Bruni in an episode that cost him politically for appearing too often on the covers of celebrity magazines.

Pollsters pointed to Sarkozy's glitzy romance with Bruni, coming at a time of economic pessimism, as a key factor in his popularity slump.

The IFOP survey published Sunday put Sarkozy's approval rating at an all-time low of 36 percent, down one point from March, the lowest level ever reached by a French president under the Fifth Republic after one year in office.

Sarkozy beat Socialist Segolene Royal in the April-May election, and took over from Jacques Chirac on May 16.


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