The Sarkozy Show: Campaign Kicks Off with Self-Congratulatory Interview
French President Nicolas Sarkozy touted himself as the euro's savior as he dove into his re-election campaign Thursday night. During his first interview in eight months, Sarkozy come across as a kind of political schoolmaster -- patting himself on the back for his successes and skipping over his failures.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hardly had time to appear before the cameras early Thursday morning when the French began celebrating Sarkozy as a hero back home. Ministers and politicians spread news of the "success in Brussels," attributing it to the president's "experience, responsibility and capacity for initiative." It was said that Sarkozy had "made the German-French axis the spearhead of Europe."
Whether discussion turned to strengthening the euro backstop fund, the increase of capital for European banks or the debt haircut for Greece, "Sarkozy reached France's goals by 100 percent and was the most important actor in the battle for saving European economies," said Senator Roger Karoutchi. The Socialist Party, in contrast to Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), are out of ideas and will turn to criticism and rejections, he said.
On Thursday evening, the president himself took the positive hype even further, organizing a prime-time appearance on both private channel TF1 and the public station France2. A private company friendly with Sarkozy produced the appearance, which was organized in the form of an interview. For more than an hour, the French leader played the über-pedagogue, patronizing his journalist interlocutors Yves Calvi and Jean-Pierre Pernaut. It was his interpretation of his own commitment to the nation, citizens and their savings accounts.
'Let's Say it Straight'
The conservative president, plagued by dismal approval ratings, tried to erase concerns about the euro crisis with a tutoring session on economics. "Sarkozy loses his credit," the left-wing daily Libération had jeered. After the failed summit last weekend, business daily La Tribune wrote: "Merkel pushes the German Europe through." The television appearance was meant to change these perceptions.
In this way, Sarkozy sought to put the decisions made at the Brussels night meeting in perspective, using the tone of a burdened statesman. "If Greece had gone bankrupt, there would have been a domino effect that would have affected everybody. The entire euro zone risked being taken down," Sarkozy said, underlining his contributions toward reaching an agreement.
The interview was characterized by wagging fingers and repeated phrases, such as "Let's say it straight," with Sarkozy playing the role of the responsible father to his country. "I don't comment, I decide," he declared before offering this statement for consideration: "We find ourselves at the start of a new world."
But it was more difficult for Sarkozy to explain France's homemade structural problems, such as the country's mountain of debt, budgetary problems and foreign trade deficit. For these, he found reasons from the past, such as decisions made during the Mitterrand era or the 35-hour work week introduced in 2001 -- a move he described as "a mistake, a misfortune, madness."
For his part, Sarkozy said he'd done everything right: pension reform, university reform, reductions in the number of civil service jobs and a national investment program. "Just don't be pessimistic," he urged. Does France not have exemplary automobile, aviation and agricultural industries, he asked, not to mention container ports and the TGV high-speed rail service?
Praise For Germany
Sarkozy also elegantly sidestepped addressing his own failures -- growing unemployment, skyrocketing debt that has increased by 757 billion under his presidency (France's total national deficit is around 1.3 trillion, the highest level of any euro member state with an AAA rating) and tax increases. He also didn't directly refer to the recession threatening the country. Still, Sarkozy had to admit that the economic forecasts had been overly optimistic for the country, pointing out that Germany had experienced the same problem.
Speaking of the Germans, Sarkozy praised Chancellor Angela Merkel -- though he had once chided her for her hesitant style, saying: "The Germans think, we make decisions" -- as an ideal partner. "Had we not been marching in step," he said this time, "we wouldn't have achieved anything." In fact, he added, Germany could serve as an example for France when it comes to tax laws, information exchange and collective investment objectives. ´
Shifting into Campaign Mode
With the election now six months away, the television interview signaled the start to the French president's campaign for another term. Sarkozy has shifted into campaign mode, and in his interview, he interpersed criticism of banking executives for excessive bonuses and dividends with suggestions of tighter regulations for financial markets and rebukes of fat-cat pay for industry bosses.
Instead of offering any concrete plans for austerity measures, he said "the debt burden must be lowered and the deficit must disappear." That statement was followed by biting remarks about Socialist candidate François Hollande's plan to hire 60,000 new teachers.
The only moment in which Sarkozy seemed thin-skinned came in response to questions about the corruption scandal that continues to surround him and his party. As he sees it, it's nothing more than a smear campaign.
Then the president, the statesman, the idealist who need not be concerned with his popularity, asked: "What do polls mean anyway?" -- and praised himself for performing his duties in shouldering the responsibilities of France.
Sarkozy did not say whether he would run for office next year. The message was clear: The crisis is not over, he is still needed. "I must protect France," he said. "I'm president until the final minute."
A follow-up awaits at the summit of the G-7 and G-20 countries in Cannes next week.
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