No prizes for guessing what’s filling the column inches of many a newspaper editorial here in France today. It’s the first anniversary of the election of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the media is having a field day to mark the occasion.
Much of the comment addresses Sarkozy’s staggering tumble in the popularity polls and what seems to be generally accepted as a turbulent first year in office. There’s no denying that a drop from 65 to 32 per cent approval ratings in the space of just one year doesn’t exactly sit easily with a man who came into office with such high hopes.
But it’s worth taking a moment to look at how Sarkozy is faring in comparison with his predecessors.
He has been accused of being omnipresent, stepping on the political toes of many of his ministers, yet by comparison with the founder and first president of the Fifth French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, he has kept an almost low profile.
At the end of his first year, de Gaulle had not only rewritten the constitution – something Sarkozy is trying to update – he had also taken the country to war in Algeria. In spite of that his approval ratings were at 58 per cent.
In 1970, one year into office, Georges Pompidou had poured money into the arts and commissioned the building of a national museum in his honour and still had the enviable level of 67 per cent approval.
Sarkozy could also look back longingly at the first year of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who in a sense might be termed the precursor of an action-packed president, if not with glamour and glitter then certainly in policy reform.
By 1975 Giscard d’Estaing had appointed the country’s first minister for women, pushed through abortion legislation and increased taxes within the space of a year. And still he managed to retain 59 per cent approval ratings.
After entering office François Mitterrand didn’t hang around and by the end of his first year in office in 1982 had abolished the death penalty, opened up radio airwaves giving rise to a media boom and introduced wealth tax. Admittedly he witnessed a drop in popularity to 51 per cent, but he still hung around for another 13 years.
Sarkozy’s immediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was the president whose first year in office the present incumbent’s most closely mirrors. In 1996, just one year into his first tenure, Chirac’s approval ratings had dropped from 59 to 36 per cent, but by the same token he didn’t really achieve very much apart from ending compulsory military service.
And the true lesson for Sarkozy to learn – and part of the reason expectations were so high when he was elected in May 2007 – is that much of Chirac’s time in office was characterised by political inertia.
That brings us back to Sarkozy's first 12 months into the job. The truth of the matter is that his style has raised more than a few eyebrows and left many feeling decidedly uncomfortable with his ability to be “statesmanlike”.
His quick divorce and even faster remarriage certainly made too many headlines for a nation used to a “private life” remaining exactly that. Sarkozy is undoubtedly a gifted orator, but sometimes his infamous temper and almost petulance has seemed to get the better of him such as when he coarsely insulted a visitor to the agricultural show in February.
Aside from style, policy has been Sarkozy’s biggest problem. He has so far failed to deliver on his election promise to increase purchasing power, there are ongoing talks with trade unions to introduce pension reform and he’s struggling to kick start the economy by tackling the 35-hour working week.
It’s not enough to keep promising that results will come – the French want to see the proof.
Even Sarkozy’s admission that he failed to “communicate” by getting the message across from the very beginning doesn’t seem to have stemmed his drop in the polls, nor does his oft-repeated reminder that he has five years in office and results should be judged at the end of his tenure.
In spite of the grumblings Sarkozy does have some factors on his side.
First up of course is the rotating presidency of the European Union, which France takes over for six months at the beginning of July.
That could give him the opportunity to shine on the international stage and relieve some of the pressure he’s feeling on the domestic front – a common ploy of many a beleaguered leader.
He still has a healthy parliamentary majority, which might prove vital if there’s more industrial action. Already there’s a national education strike planned for the middle of this month and the jury is out on how unions will react to civil service cuts or how those pension reforms will pan out.
In addition the opposition Socialist Party is still licking its wounds after last year’s defeats in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, even if it did better in March’s local elections. There’s likely to be even more infighting later in the year when the Socialists choose their new leader with every week seeming to bring a new candidate into the reckoning.
All those factors combine to give Sarkozy what many political observers consider a certain amount of leeway. After all the bottom line is that he still has four years to go and nobody ever said that being president meant having to be popular.
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