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Mr Sarkozy’s Second Draught

Published on , , Sofia

The French remain incorrigible gentlemen even toward their foes. The socialist François Hollande, who will compete against the current head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy, on the first round of the presidential elections on 22 April, describes his rival in the following way: “Mr Sarkozy is an energetic man; he talks more than he listens and is full with confidence in his own positions, even though he switches them often”. This peculiar flattery is to be found in the newly published book of the lest-wing candidate “Changing the Destiny” (Changer de destin).

Two months ahead of the elections the campaign in France is in full swing and the contenders - Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy - are on each other’s hills. Mr Sarkozy managed to reduce the 10% lead the socialist gained in January and the difference between the two is currently within the range of a polling error. If we trust the recent study of the Ipsos institute, Mr Sarkozy will win 27% on the first round, while Mr Hollande will get 31.5%; on a second tour the socialist will win by 58%.

Mr Sarkozy started his march from Marseilles (the only big city held by his party UMP) and - as formerly did François Mitterrand had - probably wished to delay as much as possible the official start of his campaign. He had, however, to begin a month earlier because of the fears that Mr Hollande would lead by even more.

Flirting with proletariat

Currently, Mr Sarkozy stays true to his rhetoric style, moving along the edge of populism. The amortisation of his arsenal is however, visible. In Marseilles the president played on the sentimental string with phrases such as “France that I love” and metaphors about a captain, leading his ship through the storm of the crisis, who “knows well the pains of the French people”. “We did not achieve everything but we avoided the disaster”, is the refrain of this campaign.

On France 2 TV the president announced that he had learnt from his mistakes and will be a “normal president”, who will talk directly to his people. The lessons are to be seen in a couple of proposals meant to attract the low-paid voters. Mr Sarkozy promises to legally ban the notorious “golden umbrellas” – the compensations for dismissed high-ranking managers and the additions to their pensions. Thereby, he seeks to respond to the increased public sensitivity about Pierre Richard, the former head of the French-Belgian bank group Dexia that was saved with public money and who, despite of his failure receives 600 000 euro annual bonus on top of his pension.

Mr Sarkozy insists that not the boards but the shareholders’ assemblies approve the salaries of top managers. Another flirtation with the proletariat: he announced a reduction of the social insurance fees of about 7 million employees with incomes between 1100 – 1300 euros. On an annual basis, they will have about 1000 euros more in their purses. The measure was called by his opponent Mr Hollande “an attempt to hide the truth”, as the funds will have to come from revocation of other salary bonuses.

Both candidates are actually competing with radical ideas that verge on demagogy. The socialist Mr Hollande wants a 75% tax for the rich. Mr Sarkozy, on his turn, launched the idea of organising a referendum on the amount of unemployment allowances. At the same time he continues to reject the ideas for referendum on the EU treaties.

The competition on the field of the populism and the flirtation with the workers speak of lost self-confidence of the current president. The formerly swaggering Mr Sarkozy, who in 2007 announced “I have changed”, appears today like a worn-out copy of himself. A kind of second draught of the people’s tribune who used to have an ear for the ordinary citizens' concerns.

The heritage of the people’s tribune

The seventh president of the Fifth Republic managed to marry a top model, to ban the burkas and to be on familiar terms with dictators, who then he topped down with military force. In 2007 Mr Sarkozy talked about purchase power and about the need “to work more to gain more”. At the end of his five-year term France remains with huge debt burden, stagnating economy and 9.7% unemployment. In January Standard&Poor’s reduced the credit rating of the country from the maximum AAA to AA. France's fundamental economic problems, such as its declining competitiveness, are still there.

Mr Sarkozy wanted to reform the pension system at once, the judiciary, the education, the public administration and he started with this simultaneously. This approach was bound to lead to chaos. One of his favourite projects – the carbon emissions tax – was revoked by the constitutional court. Retirement age, however, rose from 60 to 62 years – a step, assessed as positive by most economists .

Mr Sarkozy wanted to break up with the political morals of the past. He appointed the socialist Bernard Kouchner a foreign minister and brought in to power people with Arab origin, such as former justice minister Rachida Dati, daughter of Algerian mother and Moroccan father. But Mr Sarkozy triggered a debate about national identity and forced the ban for Muslim women to cover their faces. The president will be remembered for the expulsion of thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma.

As former interior minister, Mr Sarkozy insisted much on the security issue. One of his first pieces of legislation introduced heavier sentences for recidivists. He abolished the year-long practise to amnesty prisoners on the occasion of France’s national day 14th of July. Despite those measures, the crime rate did not significantly drop.

Mr Sarkozy's foreign policy was rather a success. France took over the rotational presidency of EU in the second half of 2008 and managed it well. The president had a leading role in the negotiations to put an end to the Russian-Georgian war in August and prepared a 6 points peace plan (the so called “Medvedev-Sarkozy plan”).

Mr Sarkozy restored the good relations with USA, that were worsened at the time of Jacques Chirac because of the 2003 war in Iraq. Paris deserved admiration for its uncompromising approach in the 2011 Libya conflict and initiated jointly with UK air strikes against the Gaddafi regime. The French leader played a major part in the happy outcome of the trial against the Bulgarian medics in Libya, who were released in July 2007 upon his decisive intervention.

The big question now is whether all this will suffice for a new confidence credit and whether the French are ready to forgive him some frivolities. A significant obstacle before his second term in power is Mr Sarkozy’s closeness to the financial aristocracy and his relations with the world of capital. Many people remember his vacation on the yacht of billionaire Vincent Bolloré on the coast of Malta in 2007, immediately after he won the elections in May 2007. Mr Sarkozy appointed in the public administration relatives and friends of his, and even tried to secure his son in the management of the public service EPAD (Etablissement public d’aménagement de la Défense). In the autumn of 2009 the 23-year old Jacques Sarkozy was elected head of the institution, which is responsible for the development of the financial and economic centre in North-west Paris. He however resigned after public protests.

For such frivolities president Christian Wulf, in neighbouring Germany, was forced to resign. Of course, in France traditions are different. It is significant that, according to the polls from May 2007, a majority of the French did not have any problem with the newly elected head of state spending his holiday on Bolloré’s yacht.

Ms Merkel's support

The parallel with Germany is intriguing also with regard to the support by the Chancellor Angela Merkel. There is nothing surprising about this support. At first glance, the Franco-German duo looks incompatible: the impatient and nervous French, who often does not know what to do with his hands and jumps among topics, against the reserved and momentarily slow German, who thinks over for long before opening her mouth.

But Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy are similar, as well. Almost at the same age, they have both walked the same path from the lows up to the height of politics. They both do not belong to the traditional elites: Ms Merkel is daughter of a Protestant pastor from the former German Democratic Republic, who made a career only after the fall of the Berlin Wall; Mr Sarkozy is son of Hungarian emigrant and descendant of Thessalonнki Jews and can also not boast as offspring of Paris's high society.

They both have strong ambition, they are “alpha animals in the politics” (pack leaders), as per the description of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The “Merkozy” tandem emerged only after they both realised that only together they are capable to move EU. For long, Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel took different sides on the issue of eurozone saving, but they learnt how to act jointly. This is the background that explains the initial signals from Berlin that the chancellor will join Mr Sarkozy’s campaign. Out of sheer German pragmatism Ms Merkel wishes to continue her partnership with a man whom she already knows.

But Ms Merkel obviously has enough sense not to cut off entirely the path toward the socialist Hollande. According to The Wall Street Journal, her team has already abandoned the intention for a potential appearance of the Chancellor at Mr Sarkozy’s campaign events. It is logical that Ms Merkel does not want to put at risk her relations with Mr Hollande who leads in the opinion polls.

With or without Ms Merkel’s assistance, Mr Sarkozy has a Biblical task – if not to rise again, at least to perform a miracle. Besides, with Mr Hollande, he has to cope with another competitor who is gaining influence – the centrist François Bayrou. The leader of the Democratic Movement (Mouvement Démocrate) has all the chances to take at least 10% on the first round. For Mr Sarkozy it is utterly important to attract those voices on the 6 May ballots. With his current approach, the miracle appears to be very difficult.

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