Sarkozy struggling to turn French election tide

President Nicolas Sarkozy is hoping to battle back from negative opinion polls in his quest for a second term in office, but his election campaign has thus far struggled to gain traction with the public.


Just six weeks before the first round of France’s presidential election, President Nicolas Sarkozy is struggling to convince voters to entrust him with a second mandate. Slumping in opinion polls and facing increasingly louder criticism, the right-wing incumbent could soon join the unenviable fate of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing–the only French president since World War Two that failed to secure re-election.

This week Sarkozy evoked the possibility of losing the election, saying if that occurred he would quit politics altogether. The comment on RMC radio, similar to a remark he made to journalists in January, left his supporters baffled and analysts wondering about his will to fight for another term.

“I don’t think Sarkozy’s heart is in this campaign at the moment,” said John Gaffney, a professor of politics at Aston University in London, and the author of “Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy”. “I think he is a bit depressed.”

According to Jérôme Sainte-Marie, director of the opinion department at the CSA polling agency, Sarkozy’s statement about quitting politics was a simple display of sincerity. “He took a chance making that kind of declaration. But he was then obligated to explain himself to supporters,” Sainte-Marie told FRANCE 24.

Sarkozy allies may be getting tired of explanations and wondering when his campaign will finally take off. After building up suspense for months over whether he would run for re-election, Sarkozy enjoyed a small boost in opinion surveys after he announced his candidacy on February 15.

However, recent polls showed a growing gap between Sarkozy and his Socialist Party challenger François Hollande.

An opinion survey by CSA published on March 5 showed that Hollande had increased his lead over Sarkozy by 2 percentage points compared to a February poll. A similar poll by the BVA agency showed the Socialist candidate ahead by as many as 8 percentage points in the first round and 18 points in the second.

“Something has been broken,” said Gilles Delafon, author of “The Reign of Contempt,” a book about diplomats disgruntled with Sarkozy. “The magnetism of the 2007 campaign doesn’t work anymore. People know about the show-off, people know about the spin... They don’t believe Sarkozy anymore.”

Fishing for ideas

CSA’s Sainte-Marie disputes the notion that Sarkozy has been meek on the campaign trail. “He has shown to be very combative, appearing on several different fronts, and he has already succeeded in containing the voter intentions of [far-right candidate] Marine Le Pen,” the opinion expert argued.

For Saint-Marie, Sarkozy is struggling to shine on the campaign trail because he lacks the freedom he enjoyed as a first-time presidential candidate in 2007. “Wherever he goes he is constantly confronted with criticism over his first term…over failure to curb unemployment and spur economic growth,” Saint-Marie said.

Other observers have noted a deficit of ideas in the incumbent’s strategy. Since he launched his re-election drive, Sarkozy has dangled a handful of policy proposals to the public, but none has gained much traction. “It is not a very modern campaign. He is jut pandering to voters he needs to win,” Anne Elizabeth Moutel, a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, told FRANCE 24.

Sarkozy’s idea of introducing a new minimum tax on company profits was mostly overlooked by the media, before being almost totally eclipsed by Hollande’s surprise plan to tax incomes above 1 million euros per year at a 75-percent rate.

The president’s recent statements that France should cut by half the number of legal immigrants coming into the country and more carefully scrutinize Muslim Halal slaughterhouses have been mostly dismissed as recycled ideas that were already floated by the far-right National Front.

“The French President clearly understands that he has lost the centre, the key centre that is needed to win an election. Every attempt that has been made in these last weeks has been to get the vote of the National Front. That is the only remaining idea he has to get re-elected,” said Gilles Delafon.

Loss of deference

Most analysts in France also pointed out that Sarkozy was the victim of his own peculiar presidential style. During his tenure he earned the mocking title of “the bling bling president” for his flashy demeanor, and was often criticized for a brashness that many in France consider to be unbecoming for a president.

While campaigning in the southwestern region of Bayonne last week, Sarkozy was forced to temporarily hide out in a bar after he was mobbed by Hollande supporters and hundreds of Basque separatists who yelled insults and threw eggs.

Food-throwing is not uncommon in French politics, or even the current election, but the incident in Bayonne was indicative of the public’s loss of deference for the office of the president, which many blame on Sarkozy. Seeking to capitalize on this sentiment, Hollande has campaigned on the promise to bring back “normalcy” to the Republic’s highest office.

For John Gaffney, regaining the respect and confidence of the electorate is key for Sarkozy at this stage of the campaign. “He has started to do his mea culpa and talk about the reasons that made him so unpopular,” he said. “If you are going to trial with the people about that comportment, then you really have to tell them why you were like that and how you’ve changed. He hasn’t done it.”

For the British scholar, French voters are uniquely passionate about elections and about their presidents. “The relationship with the office holder and the people is a very intense relationship, a very emotional relationship,” Gaffney added. “The problem with Sarkozy is that it is very emotional, but in a very negative way. That is what he has to turn around.”


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