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President Sarkozy, one year on

One year after storming to the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy will aim to revive his flagging popularity during a televised interview on Thursday. Watch our LIVE coverage and special programming at 8:15pm (GMT+2) (Story: France 3, C.Moore)

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One year ago, Nicolas Sarkozy triumphed in the French presidential election with over 53% of the vote. Since then, however, his popularity has dwindled. According to a poll published Monday by the left-leaning daily Liberation, 59% of the French see this first year as a failure. The day before, a poll in the Sunday paper The Journal du dimanche announced that only 36% of the population considered themselves “satisfied” with the president.

 

“I want to be the president who follows-through on his commitments,” the UMP candidate Sarkozy wrote on the front page of his presidential platform booklet. Twelve months on, how far has he got with the promised reforms? In an interview broadcast on both state TV and the private network TF1 at 8:15pm on Thursday night, the president will have to justify his actions and attempt to put behind him the media-hype surrounding his private life, which has weighed on his popularity in recent months.
 


In the international arena

Widely anticipated throughout the campaign, the warm-up with the United States has been front and centre ever since Sarkozy’s election. On April 3rd, the president promised to restore France’s full participation in NATO as of 2009, thereby breaking with four decades of French “independence” inaugurated by President de Gaulle’s decision to pull out of the Atlantic Alliance’s integrated command in 1966.

Several days earlier, Sarkozy had responded to US pleas for further French troops in Afghanistan. During his campaign, however, he had spoken of France’s progressive withdrawal. “No foreign army has succeeded in a state that was not its own,” he was quoted as saying.

The new president was quick to work on fulfilling his pledge to free the Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage by Colombia’s FARC rebels. However, Sarkozy’s efforts have been repeatedly frustrated by the FARC’s refusal to release the high-profile hostage. On April 8, Paris was forced to call back a special medical task force sent to Bogota, after the rebel militia dismissed France’s request. On the other hand, Sarkozy won praise for securing the release of a group of Bulgarian nurses held in Libya.

France’s ubiquitous president has fared better within the European Union. In December, he succeeded in convincing his European counterparts to sign the Lisbon Treaty, a simplified version of the aborted Constitutional Treaty rejected by French voters in a referendum in 2005.  

In March, he also managed to push through his plans for a Mediterranean Union, riding over the scepticism of several European partners. However, the compromise reached fell far short of his original ambitions.

At present, France’s head-of-state faces an altogether different foreign policy challenge with the thorny issue of the Beijing Olympics. “I will never allow economic interests to overrule the question of human rights,” he was quoted as saying prior to last year’s election.


On the national stage

No sooner had he moved into the Elysée Palace than the president was fast at work on the fiscal reforms promised during the campaign. First measures included putting a lid on tax contributions (no more than 50% of revenue), reducing inheritance tax, offering tax breaks on interest and scrapping taxes on extra hours and student work.

Most reforms were soon viewed as a gift to the country’s wealthy, as well as jeopardising any chance of balancing the budget. The government itself admitted its reforms would cost an extra 13 billion euros in 2009. According to European experts, France’s budget deficit is expected to reach 3% this year.

In order to keep his promise to balance public finances by 2012, Sarkozy was forced to launch a cost-cutting plan in early April. While steering clear of the word “austerity,” the plan notably calls for the replacement of only one in two public service retirees.

The government’s much-vaunted fiscal reforms were particularly trumpeted as a means to boost the public’s dwindling purchasing power. Yet, in this area, disappointment has been overwhelming.

Sarkozy himself seems to have thrown in the towel, as his remarks during a press conference in January would suggest. “What would you have me do to boost purchasing power? Empty chests that are already empty?”

Upon his election, Sarkozy was widely expected to reform the 35-hour working week he had spent so long demonising during the campaign. His first response was to provide French workers with the possibility to “sell” the extra holidays acquired thanks to legislation introduced by Lionel Jospin’s socialist government. Though in line with Sarkozy’s campaign slogan calling on the French to “earn more by working more,” the move was unlikely to meet the challenges facing the country’s flagging economy.

The president took up a tougher challenge in the autumn by attempting to reform France’s fossilised “special pension schemes.” His plans, however, aroused massive protests.

One of the UMP candidate’s key initiatives, designed to combat poverty and boost work ethic, was the so-called “active solidarity income.” The main aim was to convince France’s numerous unemployed that they would effectively earn more by working, rather than relying on benefits. The plan is currently on trial in a number of test regions, though its extension to the rest of the country remains on hold. At present, Sarkozy appears scarcely inclined to spend the 2 to 3 billion euros required.
Put forward as a priority right up to the vote, institutional reform has long been sidelined as the president focused on other issues. However, it now appears to be back on the agenda.

During the campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy had suggested bolstering parliament’s powers and introducing a share of proportional representation. The government is now expected to submit its proposal for modernisation of France’s institutions in May, several months behind schedule.

The president did meet his campaign pledge to reduce the number of ministers, though he multiplied the number of junior ministers instead. As a result, the government numbers no less than 38 members – that is, an increase of 6 compared to the team led by former PM Dominique de Villepin.

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