Sunday, March 23, 2008

Anyone who discounts Nicolas Sarkozy as a lame-duck president is missing the point

Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni
Entente cordiale: Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife, Carla Bruni, will be entertained at Windsor Castle

"Sarkozy sinks even further!" was the headline in Le Canard Enchaîné, France's Left-wing answer to Private Eye, as the French president launched a new nuclear submarine at Cherbourg last week.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is beginning a two-day state visit to Britain on Wednesday - three months before France assumes the European Union's rotating presidency - will arrive weighed down by a controversial image and baggage as heavy as the gold Rolex watch which he has only recently been persuaded to give up.

Fellow European leaders consider, with feelings ranging from fascination to dismay, his precipitous slide in the opinion polls of more than 30 points in less than three months; his party's poor performance in last week's local elections, and the cloud of high-octane gossip that has surrounded his very public divorce and his new marriage, to the model and singer Carla Bruni.

All those marital complications may sound horribly familiar to the Queen, of course, as the mother of three children who have divorced.

She will do the French president and the new Mrs Sarkozy what Élysée aides called the "rare honour" of accommodating them at Windsor Castle - not Buckingham Palace - on Wednesday. Mrs Sarkozy has rehearsed her curtsy, ready to "follow proper British protocol", French diplomatic advisers confirmed.

The Sarkozy visit is not just designed to make him look as lofty and presidential as polls at home suggest the French would like him to be. It is also aimed at producing some substantial diplomacy, drawing Britain into a more decisive role in Europe and as a supporter of France's return to Nato, four decades after General de Gaulle walked away from the Atlantic Alliance in a huff. If it happens to miff the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, after Berlin pulled the rug from under Mr Sarkozy's projected Mediterranean Union by voting against EU subsidies, so much the better.

For, almost obscured by the publicity and paparazzi pictures, is the fact that Mr Sarkozy has a long-matured plan of what he aims to achieve in France and abroad. "I've had 30 years to think of what I'm going to do," he told an interviewer shortly after his election last year.

He may have been surprised, and infuriated, by his loss of popularity; he thought he had been elected with a clear mandate to modernise France, and that the French wouldn't mind a younger look and style to go with it. (They did, terribly; they wanted a traditional figure who would adopt a grand bedside manner while applying the forceps.)

But anyone discounting Mr Sarkozy as a four-year lame-duck president, facing opprobrium at home and abroad just like America's George W Bush, is missing the point. Mr Sarkozy is no family heir comfortably groomed for power, no École Nationale d'Administration upper civil servant gone into politics with a safety net and a network of supercilious grad school friends.

His own father, a Hungarian refugee from communism, told him, before leaving the household for a peripatetic life full of pretty women, that "with a name like yours, you'll never make it in French politics".

Mr Sarkozy got his start at the grassroots, handing out leaflets and organising young Gaullists. He snatched the city hall at Neuilly aged 28, when his political mentor had to undergo a routine operation. He has always made enemies, and has often been unpopular.

In 1995, he briefly considered quitting politics, after he left Jacques Chirac's side to support his Right-wing rival Edouard Balladur's bid for the presidency, only to see Mr Balladur trounced by the more experienced Mr Chirac. At the time, newspaper cartoons showed Mr Sarkozy as a diminutive, cartoonish traitor, and it seemed his reputation could not recover. But it did, as he forged alliances, seized the Gaullist party from Mr Chirac's remote stewardship, and eventually defeated rivals to stand alone as the Right's presidential hopeful in the polls.

After the 2005 riots, when he was interior minister, the Left, attempting to whip up an "Anyone But Sarkozy" front, painted him as a quasi-fascist and racist. This doesn't work so well today, now that he has appointed six former Left-wingers to the most diverse cabinet in French history. Mr Sarkozy is no Margaret Thatcher. He is a man of conviction, but more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. Head-on conflict doesn't work with the French, so he would rather avoid it when possible.

He believes France will suffer fatally in the global competition stakes without reforms. But he wants to slide these past the unions by agreeing to any number of temporary sweeteners, so long as his real goals - structural reform of France's too-generous social and welfare net and of the health and state school services, plus lower tax on businesses and services - remain intact.

This strategy succeeded last November, when Mr Sarkozy defused a threatened transport strike while reaching an agreement on a common retirement age for public- and private-sector workers. And even as his party was dealt a resounding slap in last Sunday's local elections, an opinion poll found that two-thirds of voters want reforms to be implemented faster. Seated in their collective dentist's chair, the French seemed to beg for the drill - and for the whole thing to be over with already.

Mr Sarkozy has now announced that he will increase the pace of reforms, to derisive comments from the Left. He can, however, brush these aside because at national level he has only a divided opposition with which to contend.

The recent "bling-bling" anti-Sarkozy campaign was waged on style, not substance, precisely because the Socialist party is still split between two leadership contenders (Ségolène Royal, whom Mr Sarkozy beat to become president, and Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris), has no platform, and can't manage to make peace with the Greens and three small Trotskyite parties whose votes it crucially needs.

The president's real opponents are within his own party, where the old anti-Atlanticist Gaullists, horrified by what they see as a betrayal of France's non-aligned tradition, are hoping that a challenger will emerge to stand against him for the Gaullist candidacy in the 2012 presidential election.

One such might be Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux and a former prime minister; another possibility is the former foreign secretary and prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. But Mr Sarkozy's bet is that he has more political experience, and more experience of life's reversals, than any of his rivals.

Watch him this week as he proclaims a "new fraternity" between France and Britain, in a carefully honed speech to both Houses of Parliament. He has been knocked down before, but never out.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

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