Once again, Nicolas Sarkozy and his people are not on speaking terms. Visiting a huge construction site for a soccer stadium in Nice, he marches over the rubble in his dark-blue suit and dark-blue tie, feet spread wide apart in his strange, jerky gait. His face is waxen and wan. He appears tense.
Today Sarkozy is meeting young people whom state programs are meant to help find training and jobs, but they are of little interest to him and he makes no effort to hide that fact.
The President morosely asks them all the same question: "And where do you want to work in the future?" But he barely listens to their flustered answers and doesn't stand still for long. He looks like someone with other things on his mind -- Angela Merkel, for example.
Standing reverently before him, the young people don't know what to say to the man who rolled up in a convoy of a dozen cars, looking as if he just stepped out of a spaceship.
Nicolas Sarkozy has a reputation for being a talented election campaigner when it matters, but he doesn't have the gift of making people who are insignificant to him believe that he cares. As he travels around the country in the months leading up to the election, there is a palpable feeling that something isn't right between him and his people. He is beset by a speechlessness that seems hard to overcome.
With elections a month and a half away, Sarkozy faces his last big campaign. Should he lose, France faces huge change. But defeat would also mean a decisive upheaval for Europe. If Socialist candidate François Hollande is voted into Élysée Palace, he'll be a president who has asserted on several occasions that he wants to renegotiate the EU fiscal treaty.
Hollande also wants to redefine France's relationship with Germany and the roles the two countries play. For that reason, this presidential election is perhaps the most European that the French Republic -- usually so fond of focusing on itself -- has ever been through.
There are some, though only a few, who believe that Sarkozy could be re-elected. They are found among his supporters, advisers and staff, but even they themselves acknowledge negative polls and the voters who can no longer bear the sight of the president. They aren't just disappointed with his policies; it's the man himself they dislike.
According to the most favorable polls, Sarkozy will lose to Socialist candidate Hollande in the second round of voting on May 6, gaining around 44 percent of the vote, compared to the 56 percent predicted for his opponent. Two-thirds of those who intend to vote for Hollande will do so not because they want him as president, but because they want to get rid Sarkozy.
Avenue George V is a Parisian boulevard bordered by the Seine at one end and the Champs-Élysées at the other. This is where Alain Minc, one of the president's closest confidants, sits in his office, a room with five-meter ceilings and large pieces of modern art on the walls.
Minc, a conservative intellectual, has known Sarkozy for more than 25 years. He is a realist, though. Perhaps Sarkozy can't win, he says, but Hollande could still lose. The president will fight on until the very last minute, Minc adds, saying that he advised Sarkozy to "present himself as hyperactive guy in whatever he proposes until the very last day."
The world has an outdated image of Sarkozy, according to Minc. "He has changed very, very, very much." Early on he was "like a galloping horse." But now his tremendous energy is "much more concentrated, more focused." The economic crisis has calmed him down, and he has matured into a statesman, he says. The difficult thing is getting the French public, who see him differently, to believe it.
Public Not Convinced
Sarkozy has been a caricature of himself ever since he officially declared his candidacy two and a half weeks ago on television. He is everywhere at once, shaking every hand possible, sitting with factory workers in staff canteens, and suddenly taking the train instead of his limousine. He is coming up with new ideas on an almost daily basis. He wants to relax the 35-hour work week, hold a referendum on immigration, increase value-added tax, and reform schools.
The same thing happened during the 2007 election when he promised the country a "rupture," or a break with the system. Now he is promising the French people that this time he really is the candidate for change. But hardly anyone believes him.
Sarkozy has been president for five years, but it feels like he has already been in the role for ten. It isn't just the economic crisis that has worn him out. It's as though he's had two terms' worth of airtime. From the moment he was elected, he unleashed a torrent of images with himself in the center, as though he were playing the lead role in a soap opera the public was forced to watch.
Sarkozy misjudged. He took his election victory as proof of affection and an interest in him as a person, whereas the French people hoped that his energy would bring new vigor to a country in stagnation. He leaves a meager political legacy. He raised the retirement age to 62, reduced labor union clout and slashed taxes for businesses that invest in research. He reformed the university system and every citizen can now file a constitutional complaint. That's it.
Otherwise he has largely been occupied with warding off economic catastrophe. But what a politician averts rarely weighs as heavily in the public consciousness as what he actually does. France is worse off now than it was in 2007. The number of unemployed has risen by half a million. National debt has increased by €500 billion to reach over €1.7 trillion. The economy has been stagnant since 2008. Though this is largely due to the financial crisis, but the electorate blames him.
'The Problem is the President's Persona'
Still, if he is voted out of office, then it will be for a reason the French alone can understand. Many people think that Sarkozy has desecrated the role of president. He hasn't managed to repair the damage.
One member of the government admits as much, though he declines to be named. "We think that the majority of the people in the country support our ideas," he says. "The problem is the president's persona. It's true that it won't be easy to overcome that."
He committed the first sin of his time in office the very evening he was elected. Celebrating his success with the richest people in the country at a private party in the chic Fouquet's restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, he created the image of a man who was elected by the people, but serving the wealthy.
Next there were pictures of him on the sun deck of a billionaire's yacht. He seemed to have no concept of boundaries. "I can finally be myself," he told friends. Then he increased his own presidential salary by 172 percent, signed off on a new presidential jet for himself and told anyone willing to listen: "I want to make some serious money in the future too."
Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the editor-in-chief of French weekly Le Point who has written a thorough book on the president's character, describes a man who was drunk on self-love. This was a man who told him: "France is back. Kennedy was nothing in comparison. I'm in the international press every day." Sarkozy also reportedly often praised himself in front of his staff: "Look how clever I am. No one would have guessed!" He is also said to have called members of his own government "zeroes" and "complete idiots."
But Sarkozy's confidant Alain Minc says: "He didn't have a superego to start with. He did whatever he thought he should. He spoke to everyone in the same way, regardless of whether it was you, Obama or a good friend." Sarkozy believed that the French were ready for a modern president who would lead the country and not leave the day-to-day business for his government to handle as his predecessor had done, he added.
A Complicated Role
But within a year and a half of coming to power, Sarkozy's popularity ratings, which had been at 60 percent to start with, had gone into freefall. They have yet to recover. While the French certainly wanted an end to the lethargy of the Chirac years, they also wanted someone who would get the country moving, not just himself.
In France, the president remains the heir to the kings of old. But the public's expectations are complicated. They want him to be both close and distant at the same time, an obviously difficult task.
The peculiarity of the role is particularly evident in the "travels of the President of the Republic to the provinces," part of a ritual which does not appear to have changed much since the days of monarchy. Sarkozy proceeds to meet his subjects in a formalized setting, or rather, they are summoned to him.
The president always travels in an almost endless convoy of police cars, dark vans, limousines and motorbikes through blocked-off zones cleared of any political opposition. Once there, he sits opposite handpicked members of the public, businesswomen or local politicians who read clumsy, turgidly worded questions from sheets of paper. The monarch then answers with a monologue.
They are supremely undemocratic occasions. The ministers responsible for the various issues can barely get a word in. And the president is almost never contradicted. But it did happen once, in the Alpine community of Sallanches. Someone told Sarkozy that his idea of creating a label for products made in France was absurd. "I don't want to argue with you," Sarkozy snarled back. Everyone in the hall could sense that he was struggling to hide his anger.
It must be easy for a French president to lose touch with reality. Sarkozy has behaved like a boy pressing all the buttons at once, like a "child king" who can do whatever he likes, says his biographer Franz-Olivier Giesbert.
Driven By Underdog Anger
This also goes for his very public love life. When Sarkozy separated from his wife Cécilia and began a torrid affair with Carla Bruni, he announced to the press: "Carla and I -- It's Serious!" There was something obscene about the staged TV images of their happiness. "The country couldn't bear him being the type of guy who'd shamelessly say to his friends: 'Have you seen how beautiful my wife is?'" Giesbert says.
Furthermore, Sarkozy made strange statements to journalists accompanying him on a trip to French Guiana in January. "I'm the first president who hasn't renounced the right to happiness," he reportedly said during a leaked off-the-record conversation. "But when the people see me happy, they say to themselves: 'He's left us in the lurch.'"
Since the start of last year he has endeavored to play the role of ersatz king. He now wears only black and blue suits. Carla Bruni has reportedly familiarized him with literature and European cinema.
Yet he still has a hard time making people believe that he has changed. In October, he visited a traveling exhibition from the Centre Pompidou in Chaumont and made sure to give his expert opinion on works by Picasso and Braque. But in the end he was only interested in one thing. "This one here is worth several million," he said as he stood in front of a monochrome Yves Klein piece. He later asked: "And the Klein piece? Is it worth more than the Léger? Less than the Matisse?"
To understand Sarkozy, you need to know his background. He is the son of a descendant of the impoverished Hungarian noble family nagybócsai Sárközy and the daughter of Greek immigrants with Jewish heritage. His father left them when he was still young and Sarkozy grew up in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly where he felt he was a "poor person amongst the rich." He was driven by the anger of the underdog.
Sarkozy has little in common with the caricature often used to depict him. He is hard on others and hard on himself. He gets up and goes to bed early. He works tirelessly. Anyone who has had dealings with him describes a man with quick wit and an excellent memory, in addition to a fiery temper whereby the slightest trifle can trigger a 20-minute tantrum.
But Sarkozy is also a man without strong political convictions -- perhaps his greatest weakness. Every president since de Gaulle has had a political project: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing legalized abortion and committed himself to Europe. Socialist François Mitterrand wanted an equitable France. He abandoned the death penalty and introduced a wealth tax. But from day one, Sarkozy's project was just Sarkozy.
When he came into office, he continued with the policies he had inherited from his predecessors despite talk of reform. Up until the financial crisis, he believed the state had a strong role to play in the economy, like Chirac and Mitterrand before him. And like them, he also increased the deficit in his first year and a half to help stimulate the economy, one reason why France's national debt situation is now so bleak.
What have been his successes? Most have been played out on the world stage, which explains why his reputation is better abroad than at home. Who else might have decided to act on a telephone call from philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to support the Libyan rebels with sorties?
The energy that bubbles away inside of him and sometimes compels him to act injudiciously has never been as purposefully employed as in times of crisis. His best times came during the financial crisis in 2008 and during the debt crisis, when he has darted between summits and heads of states, doing a good job by most accounts.
When he first came to office, the UK was his economic model and he wanted to team up with the British, Italians and Spaniards against the Germans. But it was his forced alliance with Angela Merkel that has shaped Europe and the man himself over the last two years.
She helped him understand that France needed reforms and a balanced budget. He pressed her to take bolder steps to avoid another financial crisis. They must have ultimately come to get along with one another, something that could only explain why she would openly support him against Hollande.
But what brought him recognition within Europe is of little importance when it comes to his seeking re-election. Perhaps it is his personal tragedy that he understood so late in his mandate that France needs far-reaching reforms.
He now comes across to the French people as a penitent husband promising to do better next time, but the relationship is so poisoned that many no longer pay attention. In late January, he gave an interview which was broadcast simultaneously on nine channels to an audience of 16 million viewers.
He wanted to present reforms to the labor market but all many viewers heard was him talking obsessively about Germany, continually twitching his head, shoulders and the corners of his mouth, as is his habit. For many, watching him only seemed to reconfirm their belief that they are dealing with a madman.
A Bad Omen
Sarkozy's opponent François Hollande has little charisma and no particularly convincing economic program, but Hollande is likeable and decent and has made no big mistakes to date. According to opinion polls, it looks like just being the opposite of Sarkozy could be enough for him to be elected president.
Sarkozy once compared politics to surfing. Before the last election, he said it was all a matter of finding the right wave. That time he found one. The French were worried about their dwindling purchasing power. He proffered them the slogan: "Work more, earn more." Nothing has come of it, which of course makes it more difficult for him to find a good wave this time round.
His new slogan is "La France forte," or "A Strong France," a straightforward message meant to imply that Sarkozy is strong and Hollande is weak. On campaign posters you can see the president in profile, with the ocean in the background. The waves are pretty flat. It turns out the ocean in the pictures is in Greece -- not a good omen.
The week before last was the worst of his campaign so far. During a visit to the Basque city of Bayonne, he was forced to flee into a café to escape a booing crowd. And though he fought more fiercely than ever, he lost ground in the opinion polls, perhaps precisely because he tried so hard.
Last week he tried to turn public opinion around by participating in a TV show, during which he presented himself at once remorseful and pugnacious, but it made little effect in the polls.
Turning to Populism
In an act of obvious desperation he has recently adopted a right-wing stance on immigration in an attempt to attract supporters of Marine Le Pen's National Front. He has declared that one of the biggest problems for many people in France is how to clearly label halal meat, in addition to stating on television: "We have too many foreigners on our territory."
On Sunday he attended his biggest rally to date, appearing before tens of thousands of supporters in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte. It was seen by many as one of his final chances for a turnaround, and he used it to announce that France would leave the Schengen Agreement -- which guarantees visa-free travel between European members -- if there were no meaningful treaty changes to prevent illegal immigration within 12 months. It's difficult to say whether his strategy will be effective at a time when French voters are mainly worried about the economy.
"I always bear the possibility of defeat in mind," Sarkozy told journalists in French Guiana in January. "If I lose, I'll give up politics. You'll never hear anything more of me again."
But as he mulled over his situation, one thing still pleased him: "The people have heard so much about me the whole time. Morning, noon and night," he said. "Yet everyone still talks about me just as much. It's a miracle."