In recent weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been on a whirlwind trip around his country. Wherever he has gone, he has been doing what he does best: making promises.
He promised mountain farmers in the southern region of Provence support for their sheep-rearing practices. He promised to give the residents of high-rise apartment blocks in Paris' poverty-stricken suburbs subsidies to buy their own homes. And he promised the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan that he would continue the war on terror. It was a well-worn tactic: Sarkozy, the hyperactive, omnipresent herald of good tidings, valiantly tackling one crisis after the other.
In between his other engagements, Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni took time to see the prehistoric caves of Lascaux and admire the more than 17,000-year-old murals. Afterwards, clearly moved, he announced: "It is truly important for the president to be present at this location at this time." He did not explain why.
Then, on Thursday, Sarkozy traveled to a special European Union summit in Brussels. On Tuesday of last week, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had described Sarkozy's recently-initiated expulsion of Roma people as "shameful" and indirectly compared it to similar Nazi-era deportations. She threatened to take legal action against France over the issue.
The French president objected vehemently, and got into an argument with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso during lunch. Then he dropped an apparent bombshell: German Chancellor Angela Merkel also intended to clear Roma camps in her country, he said. A little flustered, Sarkozy scanned the faces of his colleagues around the room.
Berlin denied having any such plans. The commissioners were nonplussed: Was a German chancellor really considering clearing Roma camps? With a French president announcing it so triumphantly? The notion was completely absurd.
These kinds of histrionics have up to now been the sole preserve of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who for years has been conducting politics as a kind of reality TV show. Berlusconi adores being provocative, revels in bizarre announcements, and even makes risqué comments at international summits, with his lifted face covered in makeup. Does Europe now have a second diva in Paris?
Yes, say Parisian newspapers, which have already dubbed him "Sarkosconi." Yes, says political scientist Olivier Duhamel, one of the signatories of the "We are all French" petition, an initiative that rejects Sarkozy's plans to strip foreign-born French nationals of their citizenship if they fall foul of the law. Duhamel believes Sarkozy is as hopelessly narcissistic as Berlusconi, similarly obsessed by the idea of controlling the media, and driven by the desire to keep tabs on everything and everyone.
Just like the Italian premier, Sarkozy has long been appointing friends to key positions in both the political establishment and the media. Now he is engaging in xenophobic populism. All that is missing, Duhamel says, is "an open alliance with the far-right." It was no surprise, then, that Berlusconi was the only European leader who backed Sarkozy last week.
Nicolas Sarkozy's expulsion of the Roma is born of frustration that his popularity is at an all-time low. Just three years after he moved into the Elysee Palace, the French president's official residence, two-thirds of all Frenchmen are determined he shouldn't have a second five-year term in office. Fifty-five percent want the center-left Socialist Party in power again. Another survey found that if Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- a French Socialist who currently heads the International Monetary Fund in Washington -- were to stand in the next presidential election and it were held today, he would be able to beat Sarkozy in the second round of voting, with 59 percent of the vote to Sarkozy's 41.
The French president currently presides over a country that is turning its back on him. It does not believe him anymore. Bus stops in Paris are being bill-posted with a variation of a recent cover of The Economist magazine, showing a spaniel-size Sarkozy under a Napoleon-style hat.