Why French lost their faith in the people's President
Nicolas Sarkozy came to power a year ago promising radical change. Now even his supporters are disillusioned. Jason Burke journeys through France's heartland to chart the end of an infatuation
, Sunday April 27 2008
Leaning against the bar of the grubby Buffet de Rail in the northern town of St Omer, Mathieu Blanc offered his vision of French politics to the half a dozen coffee- and beer-sipping clients and a single bored barman.
'The problem with Nicolas Sarkozy is that everyone talks about him and no one talks about France or people like us,' the soldier turned chef said, pointing to the picture of the President beneath a local newspaper headline revealing a national approval rating of just 28 per cent. 'Do I think things are going to get better? No, it will probably get worse.'
The 29-year-old, who voted for Sarkozy in the hard-fought presidential election held a year ago this weekend, is far from alone - both in his concerns about the French premier and his general pessimism. Last week saw a string of polls revealing what everyone had sensed for weeks. From being - at least for the 53 per cent of the country who voted for him last year - the man who could shake France out of years of economic and social gridlock, the President has become deeply unpopular. A television address on Thursday night, watched by 12 million, made little difference. This weekend his poll ratings remain worse than any other president since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, other than for predecessor Jacques Chirac for a short period in exceptional circumstances.
'If he can bounce back it will take a long time,' said Frédéric Dabi, senior analyst at pollsters IFOP. 'Something very serious has happened, something has broken.'
More generally, a dark cloud has settled on France. A brief period of excitement and hope, a transient break in the otherwise continual litany of anxious complaint about inflation, the loss of France's great power status, the decline of the French language, the threat of the free market, of competition from developing nations, of diplomatic impotence, is over. 'All the fears of everything that might go wrong are condensed in the figure of the President,' Gilles Plautret, a Sarkozy loyalist and politician in the Burgundy town of Chalon-sur-Saône, told The Observer. 'That's the disadvantage of our system and political culture when things are not going perfectly.'
Plautret says he is optimistic and still has faith in the head of state's ability to turn things round. He is, however, in a minority. Across France the refrain is the same: things will get much worse before they get better, if they improve at all.
For Brice Teinturier, director of pollsters TNS Sofres, the worst is still to come. 'I see little chance of a major improvement in the months to come. Given the current global economic situation and the particularities of France, there is little that Sarkozy can actually do to rectify the situation. I anticipate a long period of disillusion, anxiety and depression marked by a powerful mistrust of politicians, government and institutions,' he said.
Certainly a journey last week from St Omer, 30 miles from the Channel coast via the cities of Lille, Paris and Dijon down to the vineyards of Burgundy and Chalon-sur-Saône revealed a profound and general pessimism.
St Omer, where Mathieu Blanc was holding forth in the station bistro, has long been a bastion of conservatism in by a sea of solid left-wing support. In last month's local elections, however, a Socialist won the town hall. This time Blanc was one of those voting for the Left.
For local activists in Sarkozy's UMP party, such as Marie-Pascale Bataille, the reasons for the disillusion are simple. 'People are disappointed. Promises were made, expectations were sky-high, voters thought change would come rapidly. But these things take time ... and then the President has made some mistakes which are pretty difficult to excuse.'
Those mistakes are fairly obvious to all. Reforms announced and then withdrawn, squabbling ministers, the President's blunt, televised 'casse-toi pauvre con' ('piss off dickhead') to a heckler at the national agricultural fair, the off-the-cuff policy making.
The aggressive, hyperactive style of Sarkozy, a born orator and political campaigner, was always likely to be more suited to opposition than to the exercise of power. In a sense, the 53-year-old former lawyer has fallen victim to an ambivalence at the heart of French political culture: a desire to see the President, who is supposed to be the incarnation of the French nation and people, behave with the dignity and presence expected of his office but somehow without losing the visceral connection with the French people - and the freshness and the informality - that made him such an attractive candidate while on the stump.
'He knew how to talk to the people, how to get across the idea that he wanted to do politics differently,' said Bataille, the St Omer activist. 'But the people want the President to be the President. They do not want to know every detail of his private life.'
For Antoine Béranger, editor of the Courrier International, Sarkozy's new style was as shocking as if 'the Queen of England suddenly started swearing at people or riding a miniature bicycle'.
'It's not so much of a problem if things are generally going well,' Béranger said. 'But when things are going badly, it's a disaster. Particularly when people begin laughing at him overseas.'
For things are not going well. The crucial issue is what the French call pouvoir d'achat, the cost of living. It was already a major issue before the elections, and Sarkozy sold voters his package of radical reforms on the basis that life would get cheaper, or at least they would have more money, under his leadership. His mixed bag of individualism, protectionism, nationalism and neoliberal economics, though incoherent, was profoundly attractive to the tens of millions of Frenchmen and women who are not rich enough to enjoy the wine, the second homes and the savoir vivre of the upper middle class but not poor enough to benefit significantly from the generous French welfare state.
'These are people - the skilled worker, the secretary, the shopkeeper - who were impatient right from the beginning,' said Pierre-Emanuel Gibson, a UMP activist in the northern town of Arras. 'They wanted things to change very quickly. They are not afraid to work hard - half their parents were miners - but they don't necessarily have a deep knowledge of economics and often think that the President is all-powerful. Given what is happening in the world, he isn't.'
For the French economy is in trouble. With the euro now so high, exports are suffering. Growth rates - even before the subprime crisis - were weak, inflation has surged, salaries have remained unchanged and unemployment, though it has dipped a little, remains at one of the highest levels in Western Europe, especially among the young. A chunk of the President's live television address last week was devoted to a slightly surreal discussion of the price of ham. In this climate, according to Teinturier the pollster, 'Sarkozy's ostentatious consumption - the Rolex, the Raybans and the millionaire friends with their yachts and private jets - is harder to swallow than it might be otherwise.'
Sarkozy loyalists complain that his achievements - the rehabilitation of relations with the US, the European mini-treaty, reforms to the sclerotic university system and public sector retirement programmes - are being forgotten. But, with the lack of evident coherent political vision, it is hardly surprising that the resolution of often highly technical problems lacks resonance. The anniversary of the revolts of May 1968 has underlined the sense of loss and instability.
'Today's generation almost envy us,' Henri Weber, one of the leaders of 1968 revolts and a senior Socialist Party leader, told The Observer in the Paris headquarters of the French opposition party. 'We achieved great things. We had a utopian vision. Everything was possible. They feel a bit lost. And they are not going to attempt a revolution because they think that will just make things worse.'
More generally, Weber said, there is a sense that France is losing its place in the world: 'Once we were the centre of civilisation, with an immense empire, the major power of the continent. Now we are in decline, like an extremely brilliant individual who is ageing and losing his powers. We hate it.'
Overseas, the conclusion is clear. For all last year's talk of change, the excitement over his divorce and rapid remarriage to singer and model Carla Bruni, the campaign slogans of 'together, everything becomes possible', the new style and the febrile energy, Sarkozy is seen as a busted flush. The new era he hoped to usher in is over before it has even begun.
Yet this analysis is flawed in two important ways. First, it exaggerates the collapse of the President's support by underestimating the degree to which France was polarised even before Sarkozy took power. Neither of the two waiters working in the Pélican D'Or restaurant opposite Lille station on Thursday night was bothered about missing the President's TV appearance: one because he 'can't stand Sarkozy and everything he stands for', the other because he was 'too disappointed' at the President's failure to crack down on immigrants and unemployment.
And it is the second sentiment that is important. For though half the country viscerally detests a candidate they see as a psychologically unstable, media-obsessed demagogue, millions still back his programme - they just believe he has been unable to put it into practice. Mathieu Blanc in St Omer believed the President had been held back by 'the people around him, the parliament, the political elite'. One retired physics teacher in the small Burgundian town of Chagny said that the problem was not Sarkozy but 'the people who were behind him, the financiers, the capitalists'.
Some fear that such feelings, coupled to an already powerful distrust of state institutions and politicians, may lead to a revival of the once powerful extreme Right. The National Front has fared poorly at recent polls, not least because Sarkozy, with his hard line on immigration, won over many of their voters. Yet that shift could be temporary. Jean-Louis Latenne, 60, a former electrician from Lille, said that Sarkozy had done 'nothing that he said he would do ... I'm not voting for that barking mad dog again. He just lies. I'll vote for someone honest, someone who will do what needs to be done. I'll vote National Front.'
The disarray of the French Socialists helps no one either, analysts say. Unable to unite around a leader, without a clear ideology, still dominated by an old guard of discredited senior politicians, riven by clan wars, they offer an unconvincing alternative. Chalon-sur-Saône is the home town of Rachida Dati, born to immigrant parents in a tough estate on its outskirts and now Sarkozy's Justice Minister. 'It was the Right who spotted her, encouraged her and made her a minister,' said one veteran local Socialist activist. 'That wouldn't happen on the Left and that's a real problem.'
Platrel, the local UMP activist, admits that Sarkozy's great weakness is that he wants, indeed needs, to be liked. 'He wants more lines in the dictionary than his predecessors,' Platrel said, sipping a glass of Chablis on the terrace of a cafe on Chalon's Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. 'The promises he made were a gamble but it's a bet he will win. He is a player and he has played for big stakes.' Few think this game is over yet.