European Elections in France Sarkozy the Campaigner Retakes the Stage

Nicolas Sarkozy is back in his favorite role -- that of election campaigner. The French president is campaigning on behalf of his UMP party in the run-up to European elections -- and already has his eye on the 2012 presidential vote in France.

By in Nimes


Sarkozy is back, teetering on his tiptoes, with his trademark big gestures and jerking shoulders. Speaking in front of 4,500 selected supporters of his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party -- a thoroughly bourgeois audience of a certain age -- the French president carves a line in the air with the edge of his hand and punctuates his utterances with the stab of a pointed finger. The Le Parnasse sports stadium, where the rally is being held, has been decked out with blue carpeting for the occasion. Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking in front of the French tricolor and the European Union flag, builds himself up into a sweaty rage.

An impassioned Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a campaign speech in Nimes Tuesday.
REUTERS

An impassioned Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a campaign speech in Nimes Tuesday.

He rants, complains, praises, spouts polemics, speaks of "a beautiful France" in the heart of Europe and evokes the era of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. His hands reach into the air when he rails against "tax havens" and "the suicidal system" of a virtual economy and when he calls for "sustainable growth" and the "moralization of capitalism."

Sarkozy is back -- not as the head of state, not as president, but as the election campaigner in perpetual motion. It is his favorite role, one that he never really gave up.

"Because the present is so difficult, let us look to the future," he says. It's true that "no one can say when things will get better," the president admits, speaking of "the fears and suffering of the weakest." But he also talks of a new beginning and calls for optimism rather than malaise, a European future rather than depressed navel-gazing. "It is time for action," he says.

If one believes the rhetoric, if one buys into the show and its atmosphere, one might think the economic crisis was already well on the retreat, like swine flu in Mexico.

Thwarted Plans

Sarkozy does not like anniversaries -- it is said that he would have preferred to skip the commemoration of his election victory two years ago altogether. Nonetheless, he has returned to the city of Nimes in Provence on the eve of the two-year anniversary for a "republican meeting." "It is not about taking stock," he announces -- but cannot resist making a list of his own merits as president.

It's no coincidence. Here, in the exhibition hall near the city center with its Roman excavations, Sarkozy, even before his official nomination in the presidential campaign, had praised the value of work, swore to the legacy of the "eternal France" and announced an "era of hope." The message at that time could be summed up in just one word: "build."

That was 2006. Reality has since caught up with Sarkozy's visions. Financial collapse and recession have buried his grandiose reconstruction plans. Two years after Sarkozy's dazzling election victory, disillusionment has set in among his political base. His skillful reaching out to left-wing opposition politicians, his squad of female ministers, his relaxed public image -- everything represented his policy of making a break with the past. But the popular move away from dusty traditions was soon overshadowed by Sarkozy's various faux pas.

His open weakness for luxury, his tax cuts for the rich and powerful, the public display of his private life -- in the form of his marital crisis, divorce and whirlwind marriage to Carla Bruni -- disturbed his conservative supporters. With his pro-American shift, he -- at least during the era of former US President George W. Bush -- met with disapproval even among his staunch followers. Finally, Sarkozy, as the sole actor on the political stage, with his authoritarian style of leadership, simultaneously playing the role of head of government and minister of all departments, triggered a veritable revolt within his own party.

France in May 2009 means crisis management. The conservative reform agenda, which was at times pushed through with brute force, irritated judges, lawyers, university professors, nurses and doctors. Students are occupying their universities, while this week angry prison staff blocked access to penal institutions. The resentment manifests itself not only in marches and union rallies; the conflict has escalated into wildcat strikes, corporate bosses being taken hostage by employees and occasional acts of sabotage -- most recently at the gas works in Paris last weekend. Ex-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has even spoken of the country being on "the eve of a revolution."

Disappointment

Although Sarkozy is trying with the help of his cosmopolitan wife to project a more presidential image and has traded in his economic liberalism for a more interventionist approach "to protect citizens," he continues to languish in a permanent low in the polls. Two-thirds of his fellow citizens are disappointed with his achievements as president so far, according to one recent survey.

"The criticism focuses on four main points: purchasing power, unemployment, reforms and style of government," says Brice Teinturier, director of the polling institute TNS-Sofres. "On top of that, many French people feel that the government is not acting in accordance with the principle of equality in its response to the crisis."

With the issue of Europe, at least, Sarkozy is on safer territory -- especially in front of UMP loyalists. It gives Sarkozy the opportunity to praise his own tour de force as EU president -- his lightning diplomacy in Georgia, his proposal for a Mediterranean Union or his G-20 initiatives after the outbreak of the banking crisis. Such issues give him the aura of a dynamic leader, even if his unilateral trips abroad were met with criticism at the time.

With an eye to the dramatic economic decline, the Élysée strategists want to present Sarkozy once again as a pragmatic manager. After Nimes, he will be schmoozing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this coming weekend in Berlin. It will be a diplomatic pas de deux intended to benefit both sides. "When Europe wants something, Europe can do it," reads the French motto in a reference to the presidential election slogan. And Sarkozy's image naturally decorates the UMP flyer for the European election campaign.

The downside of this strategy is that the opposition can take aim at the UMP's leading candidate. The Socialists want to make the EU election on June 7 into a referendum on the French president's domestic achievements. A rebuff at the ballot box, of course, would change nothing in the parliamentary balance of power, but a loss of face for Sarkozy could at least help the opposition, which is divided by insider struggles and political trench warfare, to get out of their persistent malaise before the French go to the polls in regional elections next year.

For the time being, however, Sarkozy can govern unchallenged, if only because the opposition benches are lacking a leader who could provide a convincing alternative. "The final reckoning will come after five years," he says. He had previously described his emotional state as "serene … neither hopeful nor skeptical."

At the same time, the president has long been implying that his career will not come to an end in 2012. "There is still so much to do," he says.

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