France President Nicolas Sarkozy struggles to connect with voters

PARIS — Just hours after 40,000 runners gathered at Place de la Concorde, the historic gateway to the French capital, for the start of the Paris Marathon, Nicolas Sarkozy was in the same spot for a rally marking the home stretch of a long reelection campaign.

With supermodel wife Carla Bruni in the front row, the French president — and avid runner — clearly intended to show he was in fighting shape to win the race.

Unfortunately, last weekend’s event evoked an entirely different symbolism: Place de la Concorde is, after all, where King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, lost their heads to the guillotine.


Nobody expects Sarkozy to lose his head in Sunday’s election, except metaphorically, but the imagery was a potent one. If Sarkozy succeeds in overtaking his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, and finds himself retaining the keys of the Elysee Palace, it will be more than a victory; it will be one of the most astonishing comebacks in French political history.

The latest opinion polls show the two men to be neck and neck for the first round of voting but give Hollande a lead of 10 to 14 percentage points in the expected runoff two weeks later.

A recent poll for the Journal du Dimanche newspaper found that 64% of French disapproved of Sarkozy. That’s higher even than the rating for the unpopularValery Giscard d’Estaingduring his tenure. Giscard was the last president to lose his reelection bid, in 1981.

The truth is that Sarkozy, 57, has never succeeded in shaking off the negative impression he made at the beginning of his five-year term, that the conservative leader was the “president of the rich.” That image plays badly, especially given that a few months after he took office, the global recession hit, leading to belt-tightening measures.

Before the 2007 election, he had hinted that he would go into retreat in the days before the transfer of power to consider how to lead France. Instead, he threw a party at Fouquet’s, one of the most ostentatious restaurants in France. Then he spent a few days vacationing in the Mediterranean on the yacht of a billionaire businessman friend.

Sarkozy, the French were told, had no hang-ups about celebrity or money; instead of reassuring them, however, the flashy watches and aviator sunglasses simply cemented his reputation as the “bling-bling” president.

Manuel Valls, a spokesman for Hollande, believes the French were, and remain, shocked by Sarkozy’s attitude in those first few weeks.

“Nicolas Sarkozy had spoken of rupture and reform, but his personal behavior and symbolism of that time were terrible. He said he would go to a monastery and he went to Fouquet’s and a luxury yacht. He also increased his salary by 140%. People were absolutely shocked by this.”

Bluff and not given to mincing his words, Sarkozy promised to turn France away from its traditional partnership with Germany and remold the country along more Anglo-Saxon free-market lines. His France would be more dynamic and competitive. People who “got up early” and those who wanted to “work more to gain more” would be encouraged and would have more money in their pockets. It was a formula that won over the French electorate.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis soon ended his ambitious plans. Instead, Sarkozy found himself presiding over rampant unemployment, a damaging public spending deficit and the loss of France’s triple-A credit rating. Instead of moving away from Germany, he found himself in lock step with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to extinguish debt conflagrations in Europe that threatened the stability of the entire continent and the euro.

Sarkozy’s government came up with two austerity plans in quick succession. The first amounted to about $15.2 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, the second to about $26 billion, including reductions in health services and a higher retirement age.

“We have entered a new world,” Sarkozy said in a nationally televised interview in October. The president’s emphasis has been on the necessity for cuts in public spending, but rival Hollande believes the solution to the economic crisis is in encouraging growth.

As people saw their spending power decline, taxes rise and jobs and affordable housing become increasingly difficult to find, the flashiness of Sarkozy’s early optimistic weeks in office came back to haunt him.

As one of Sarkozy’s most loyal lieutenants, Interior Minister Claude Gueant, acknowledged in February, “Nicolas Sarkozy is suffering a lack of affection in the eyes of the French.”

However, he said, Sarkozy had shown his “credibility in exercising supreme power” in the face of economic turmoil.

In the last few weeks, Sarkozy has given the impression he is flailing. Britain’s right-of-center Daily Telegraph said he has led a “carpet bomb” campaign that has shifted from one theme to another and in which Sarkozy has attempted to re-brand himself as less the president of the rich and more the people’s president.

But Franck Riester, a Sarkozy spokesman, remains optimistic. “I feel very strongly that nothing is final. I am totally convinced it’s not over for Nicolas Sarkozy, not only for the first round, but also for the second.

He criticized what he saw as Hollande’s strategy of playing the “anti-Sarkozy” card, saying, “I believe this will rebound on him.”

In Place de la Concorde on Sunday, Sarkozy appealed for the French people to save him from the chop.

“Dear compatriots, take your destiny in hand. Rise up. Speak. Say what you have in your heart. Say what you want for your country. Say it loud and clear. Say it now.

“People of France, hear my appeal. French men and women help me, help me, help France.”

That did not stop the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur magazine from pointing out that when he went to shake hands in the crowd, he took off his watch.

Was he more worried about it being lost or stolen, or about the damage a Patek Philippe timepiece in white gold worth an estimated $72,000 might do to his efforts to appear a man of the people?

Willsher is a special correspondent.