By Stefan Simons in Paris
The presidential trips to the far flung corners of his nation are part of Nicolas Sarkozy's plan: Whether it be industry, arts, culture or science, the French leader likes to find the appropriate backdrop to announce reforms, new programs and plans of action. Last Sunday, he announced new subsidies for farmers inside a stable at an agricultural fair. Employment and job training were themes introduced in the district of Doubs in eastern France.
The presidential appearance at the round table was supposed to symbolize Sarkozy's close connection with the French people. "I am happy to be here," Sarkozy said, praising the region of Franche-Comté (which includes the district of Doubs) as "the most important industrial region of France." But even though the president's visit was carefully staged and took place in front of a well-mannered, welcoming crowd, the lightning visit to the city of Pontarlier, in Doubs, didn't exactly come across as an exercise in statesmanship. Instead of being perceived as victorious, Sarkozy appeared to be both overly sensitive and aggressive.
Record Lows in Polls
There are plenty of possible reasons for the bad atmosphere: The French leader's popularity has sunk to record lows in recent polls, unemployment has risen to 10 percent, the highest level in a decade, and the polls taken ahead of upcoming regional elections -- they take place this Sunday -- predict a clear and dramatic loss for Sarkozy's conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
In addition, rumors about Sarkozy's relationship with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, are making the rounds in Paris. Weakened by his own political frailties as well as strife within his own party, Sarkozy no longer exudes the macho aura he once possessed, nor even the characteristics of a hyperactive manager. Instead, only days before the regional elections, he seems weary of his office.
Then again, the effort he must make is not exactly small. Sundays elections are taking place in 26 regions, with 254 lists and 1,830 seats -- it would be roughly the equivalent of every German state holding elections at the same time. Power in 22 regional representatives' bodies between the Mediterranean and the English Channel is being contested. Up until now the left-leaning opposition has governed in all of them, with the exceptions of Alsace and Corsica. Outside of mainland France, representatives will also be elected for Guadaloupe, Martinique, French Guiana and Réunion.
A Litmus Test
The first round of voting is not about the appointment of politicians to any national posts, and the regional vote won't alter the clear balance of power in the Parisian parliament either. Parties and politicians will merely seek to qualify for a run-off vote to be held the following weekend. Still, this exercise in democracy is being considered a barometer of the president's popularity as well as a litmus test for the administration halfway through Sarkozy's term.
And as such, the latter looks devastatingly bad. Companies are closing, farmers are reporting diminishing incomes and in the coming year up to 1 million French people who are currently drawing unemployment benefits threaten to fall into poverty as they are transferred over to the country's welfare rolls. The administration is predicting growth of 1.4 percent in gross domestic product, but France's central bank has downgraded its growth prediction to a mere 0.4 percent for the first quarter.
Additionally, there is dissatisfaction among teachers, child care professionals and parents about Sarkozy's job cuts in eduction. And this week judges and lawyers demonstrated against reforms in the justice system. Workers, people living in rural areas and conservative citizens have turned away from Sarkozy, and his team in Élysée Palace, France's answer to the White House, seem to be permanently in conflict with their colleagues at the Hôtel Matignon, where the prime minister of France, François Fillon, resides. Conservative party politicians are feeling the lack of a clear message from the top. And as for Sarkozy's power? "He's lost it," complains one member of his party. "He can barely even control his facial expressions."
Opposition Upbeat, Even Far Right
The leftist Socialist Party (PS) is expected to profit from Sarkozy's slump in popularity more than any other party. Only a few weeks ago, Martine Aubry was seen as the weak temporary head of the PS party but now she seems to be on a high, which has inspired hope of a comeback for a Socialist Party that had practically been declared dead. During the election campaign there was an unexpected showdown between the Parisian leadership of the Socialists and a party bigwig in the Languedoc region, who was kicked out of the party after making anti-Semitic comments. He is now competing in the election as an independent candidate. But the dispute is likely to further improve Aubry's standing within the Socialist Party.
The Communists, the Left party and other smaller parties are also feeling upbeat. Polls taken prior to this weekend's first-round of voting indicate that the Socialists are leading by only a slight margin, so it is likely that the smaller left-leaning parties will be decisive to the outcome during the second round of voting. This is why the French Green party is also counting on a repeat of their success at the European Parliament elections, where they almost beat the Socialists.
Even members of France's right-extremist party, the National Front (FN), are optimistic. Marine Le Pen, daughter of, and successor to, the former party head Jean-Marie Le Pen, has skillfully managed to add a few populist policies to her party's traditional anti-immigrant sloganeering. During the election campaign in the northern district of Pas-de-Calais, she lambasted crime as much as she criticized the shifting of formerly French production to overseas locations. "The workers have had enough of the Communists. Nor do they believe a single word Sarkozy says," Le Pen said, offering her prediction of "good prospects" for her party in the area.
A Weary Electorate
The numbers could work out, particularly if voter turnout slips beneath 50 percent -- an outcome that is plausible, at least for the first round of voting. This may happen, too, because the hope that was placed in political change -- the sort of hope that saw Sarkozy defeat Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, with overwhelming voter turnout of 84 percent in 2007 -- has been beaten down by the mid-term blues. "The perceived lack of power of political leadership to combat the problems in French society, and beyond that, unemployment, is responsible," Brice Teinturier, of the polling institute TNS Sofres, says of the French public's attitudes. "The disappointment is equivalent to the (former) expectation."
Sarkozy is already anticipating a possible election debacle. He has said that there will be a "pause" in his planned reforms. A cabinet reshuffle, which would signify another new political beginning, is not on the cards -- that would be a sign that Sarkozy is giving in. Besides, Sarkozy told listeners at the round table in Pontarlier, "this is a French problem," and one should not confuse these matters.
"Local elections require local consequences; national elections require national consequences," he said.
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