Saving public Sarkozy
Ever since key public figures signed a manifesto in a French magazine denouncing the dangers of a monarchical drift - without ever mentioning the president's name - the political atmosphere in France has been electric. Nicolas Sarkozy's rapid fall from grace is unprecedented in the history of the Fifth Republic. His popularity ratings are plummeting, and his party, the conservative UMP, is predicted to fare badly in the municipal elections in mid-March.
What is behind the collapse in Sarkozy's popularity? Can he recover?
These questions are crucial not only for France, because we are five months away from a French presidency of the European Union that should have been an important step in Europe's own rebound.
The attacks on Sarkozy are very personal, and focus as much on his "essence" as on his performance. Can he incarnate France with dignity and legitimacy? Can he transform intuitions and speeches into concrete actions? Has he already lost touch with reality, surrounded as he is by a court of media courtesans?
In the eyes of a majority of French citizens, for whom presidents are "elected monarchs," Sarkozy has "de-sacralized" the presidency. Unlike constitutional monarchies, France does not distinguish between the symbol and the reality of power. Sarkozy may want to be a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, but in symbolic terms he is also the Queen. And, in his quest for modernity and transparency, he has de-legitimized the symbolic dimension of his function by mixing his private and public lives.
On the one hand, Sarkozy's fascination with rich people has helped isolate him from the average Frenchman. Yet, on the other hand, his flashy style is considered vulgar by traditional French elites, who are keen to dissociate themselves from someone whose educational background and instinctive reactions clearly marks him as not one of them. His love life is not seen as a human, romantic affair and a sign of youthful energy, but as a possibly fatal distraction, the ultimate proof of his "immaturity."
Of course, if the international economic environment had been more favourable, and if there were not so much legitimate concern about declining purchasing power, the French might have shown greater indulgence towards their young president. But it looks as if Sarkozy, once obsessed with gaining power, has progressively lost touch with reality since achieving his goal. You cannot proclaim your impotence in the face of empty state coffers after pushing through useless and costly tax breaks for the richest. And you cannot adopt a Churchill-like call to sacrifice when you indulge in a series of highly publicized luxury weekends with your latest fiancée.
Moreover, if Sarkozy has eroded, perhaps fatally, the "sacred" symbolic nature of the presidency, his governance has failed to provide any compensating reassurance. Multiplying initiatives, being everywhere at once, accelerating the pace of reforms at the risk of confusing quality and quantity, breaking taboos, and blurring the lines between secularism and religion, Sarkozy has reinforced lingering doubts about a brilliant politician's ability to become a statesman or at least an effective ruler. The influence of his court has been seen as excessive and dangerous, marginalizing and frustrating the government, parliament, and his own party.
But it is much too early to bury Sarkozy. While he has seemingly lost touch with the French people, he is deeply aware of and wounded by his declining popularity, and no one should underestimate his ability to reinvent himself with a new government after the municipal elections and greater distance from his immediate entourage.
In any case, France is not Russia. Despite some troubling similarities between Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin, French democracy is not in danger. What is at stake is the dignity of the presidential office and, beyond that, France's ability to modernize.
Indeed, the most serious casualty of the current political climate in France is Sarkozy's reform agenda. It is as if his personality had become the biggest obstacle to his determination to break with the past. Perhaps too much uncontrolled rupture in style can ultimately lead to paralysis in substance.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times