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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses the eG8 forum in Paris, May 24, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses the eG8 forum in Paris, May 24, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)

Lady Luck not helping unloved Sarkozy Add to ...

It was as if Nicolas Sarkozy had been handed the world on a plate: A disgraced opponent; a child on the way; a bold military campaign; and the Western world's top leaders headed to France to give his ideas a global audience.

And yet, in a sign of the deep fissures cutting through European politics and the dark public mood, the French President is still struggling to hold the French public's attention and retain hope of remaining in office a year from now.

The same week his main serious opponent for the French presidency, Socialist hopeful and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was unseated by a sex-attack charge in New York, his celebrity wife Carla was reported to be pregnant. It was a gift, giving the rumour-plagued Mr. Sarkozy the allure of a stalwart family man just as his foe's fortunes went the opposite direction.

France also announced that it would begin helicopter attacks against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya, taking its army well beyond the civilian-protection mandate of the NATO mission - the sort of bold unilateral show of force that is often well received in France.

And on Thursday and Friday, Mr. Sarkozy will have the world come to his doorstep, as France hosts the G8 summit of world leaders. (It will also host the larger G20 summit this autumn.) In characteristically grand French style, his aides this week announced a range of initiatives in African development, Middle East assistance and financial reform, designed to put the President at the forefront of world affairs.

But so far, it isn't quite working. A major poll released Tuesday, based on interviews conducted several days after the sex-attack arrest of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, showed that Mr. Sarkozy would still lose next year's presidential election if it were held under current conditions.

"So far, polls don't indicate that either the disappearance of Strauss-Kahn from the French presidential race or indeed the prospect of Sarkozy's global role have done anything to improve his numbers," said Thomas Klau of the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Clearly, the Élysée's hope has always been that the twin G8 and G20 presidencies coming as France gears up for the presidential election would do a lot to strengthen Sarkozy's public profile as a strong leader and a dynamic President, respected by international peers. But that hasn't happened."

Why have several clear domestic victories so far failed to drive Mr. Sarkozy back into the hearts of French voters? A big part of it is the economy, which is creating record levels of unemployment in France (but the country's still faring better than most European countries).

But there is a deeper political schism that is eating away from Mr. Sarkozy's support from both the left and the right, and often appears to be an inescapable trap.

On one side, he faces the rising fortunes of Marine Le Pen, the head of the extreme right-wing National Front, founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her party, radically opposed to immigrants and minorities and often described as fascist, has become so successful that earlier this year several polls declared it France's second-place party, beating the Socialists.

Mr. Sarkozy has responded to this rise by moving ever further rightward with harsh, symbolically loaded policies aimed at minorities: a ban on some forms of Muslim head scarf, and the eviction of Roma people, or gypsies, from their camps.

Not only has this failed to stop the drain of support from his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) to the National Front, but it has also produced a rupture among more tolerant members of his party.

This has left the French President in a bind: In order to prevent support from draining away on both his left and right, he is likely to devise policy positions that contradict one another - and incoherence is precisely the characteristic of Mr. Sarkozy that most often seems to annoy mainstream voters.

So as he heads into the G8, observers here say, Mr. Sarkozy is likely to send messages in a variety of contradictory, but decidedly urgent, directions.

"The goal here is not coherence," said Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst with the French Institute of International Relations. "Mr. Sarkozy does not want to be a passive man - he wants to look very modern, very active, very committed. He is not looking for coherence. He is existing - he is trying to show that France is existing."

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