When he was first elected president in 2007, besting his Socialist challenger Segolene Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy boasted a political appeal that transcended party lines. Though technically the “conservative” candidate, he won even traditionally blue-collar voters that leaned left.
Five years on, that crossover appeal seems like a distant memory. While opinions of Sarkozy still cross party lines, what binds them now is popular dissatisfaction with his tenure. Thus Sarkozy’s disappointing showing in the first round of presidential voting this Sunday, which saw him come in second behind his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande. With the deciding May 6th runoff looming, Sarkozy’s days may be numbered.
No small share of the damage has been self-inflicted. For instance, much of the early goodwill was sacrificed immediately after Sarkozy’s 2007 election, when he chose to celebrate his win in the company of an exclusive entourage at a ritzy restaurant on the Chaps Elysées. The choice of venue, for which Sarkozy later expressed regret, earned him the moniker of being the “bling bling president” and an attendant reputation for flash and opulence, a particularly radioactive combination at time when the country faces tough economic times. It hardly bolstered Sarkozy’s common-man appeal that, soon after, he went through a high-profile divorce, leaving his wife Cecelia Ciganer to marry the Italian-born super model Carla Bruni. In recent days, he has struck a remorseful pose, apologizing for not “understanding the symbolic dimension of the president’s role and not being solemn enough in my acts.” But that may be too little too late.
If Sarkozy did not live up to the symbolic demands of the French presidency, neither did he make good on many of his policy promises. Elected on what by French standards was a relatively free-market, conservative platform, Sarkozy has not governed that way. Despite modest reforms like raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, Sarkozy has largely broken promises to grow the economy, trim France’s bloated public sector, and embrace fiscal discipline.
To the contrary, he has launched a number of dubious and expensive spending programs. Rather than reforming the country’s generous welfare system, he has relied on debt to sustain it. He also passed a $26 billion stimulus to prop up the French car industry and fund projects like high-speed trains. That was preceded by a $25 billion strategic investment fund to “protect” French industry from foreign takeovers. And the debt goes on. Sarkozy has promised to take out an additional $52 billion “grand loan” that would be invested in green technologies and a “gigantic campus” for a new university in a Paris suburb.
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