French Toast: How Sarkozy Found Himself on the Verge of Presidential Defeat

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Xavier Leoty / AFP / Getty Images

Rough ride Sarkozy in La Rochelle, western France on February 21, 2012

During a campaign visit to the city of Bayonne on March 1, French President Nicolas 
 Sarkozy suddenly found himself engulfed by a crowd of locals he thought had come to cheer him.

Instead, they shouted insults at him and forced him to seek refuge in a local bar. A week later, another hostile horde jeered Sarkozy at a stop in the town of St.-Just-St.-Rambert in the center of the country. As he heads toward the first round of voting on April 22, this is not at all how France's President hoped his re-election bid would go.

Sarkozy, after all, is the man who rallied a NATO-led coalition to intervene in Libya — preventing the likely slaughter of civilians in the rebel-held parts of the country and leading to the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It was also Sarkozy who helped spearhead the coordinated bank rescues across the European Union in response to the financial crisis that began in 2008. More recently, Sarkozy partnered with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to persuade European leaders to fund bailouts for countries on the verge of defaulting on their debt — a measure that may have saved the euro and prevented a worldwide financial meltdown. So why do polls show this globally respected leader and formidable campaigner trailing his Socialist opponent, François Hollande, a man who has never held national office? And why is he sheltering from angry voters in bars?

The short answer is: C'est l'économie, stupid. Although many French voters give Sarkozy credit for his work with Merkel to save the common currency, they blame him for contributing to France's sizable debt. Under Sarkozy's nominally conservative reign, increased spending lifted the country's debt from $1.6 trillion in 2007 — Sarkozy's first year in power — to more than $2.2 trillion in 2011. That means debt grew from 64.2% of French GDP in 2007 to 85.3% last year. Frustration at the rising debt burden sharpened late last year when Sarkozy embraced Merkel's continent-wide austerity gospel with belt-tightening measures worth $24.6 billion. The public mood darkened further when Sarkozy's stated reason for the deep spending cuts — preserving the AAA credit rating — went up in smoke in December, when Standard & Poor's downgraded France's rating to AA. The country is now facing dismal growth forecasts, falling income levels and a rising rate of unemployment that is expected to surpass 10% this year. "His international and European achievements notwithstanding," says Thomas Klau, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, "Sarkozy is being judged by voters almost exclusively on his domestic record."

Voters are also put off by Sarkozy's reputation as "the President of the rich," a moniker first inspired by a round of tax cuts in 2007 that mostly benefited the wealthy. Sarkozy's unabashed fondness for money and his friendships with some of France's wealthiest people have solidified his image as the king of bling. So too has his posh life with his third wife, former model and millionaire Carla Bruni, who this month drew titters for defending her husband's taste for luxury, assuring a journalist, "We're modest people."

Little wonder, then, that French voters, dreading that more austerity measures may be waiting for them after the election, may prefer the cuts to be imposed by a President who seems more capable of feeling their pain. Advantage to the scooter-driving, unassuming Hollande. Yet as French political analyst Nicole Bacharan notes, Sarkozy never hid his admiration and hunger for success and all its trappings or his desire that his own ambition inspire greater effort, innovation and reward across the French economy. "Many things the French fault Sarkozy for now are also what made him such an unusual and popular politician in the first place," says Bacharan.

In 2007, voters flocked to the uncompromising commitment and supreme confidence of Sarkozy, who promised a modernized French presidency. His stubborn intransigence struck many as refreshing after 12 years of flip-flopping stasis under his predecessor Jacques Chirac. His single-mindedness was also key to Sarkozy's two successful stints as France's Interior Minister, during which he vowed to purge troubled housing projects of delinquent "scum" and forcefully battled illegal immigration. And too bad if critics called that electoral pandering to the extreme-right National Front party (FN); the resulting popularity fueled Sarkozy's successful presidential run and buoyed his first two reformist years in power.

Now Sarkozy is attempting to replicate his 2007 seduction of FN voters in his quest for re-election. His renewed overtures to the extreme right were on display during a March 11 rally, when he proposed protectionist measures benefiting French and E.U. companies that face what he called "unfair competition" from the U.S. and Asia. He also pledged to negotiate a tightening of the E.U.'s border treaty. That message echoed Sarkozy's earlier promise to slash immigration to France because "we have too many foreigners."

Besides trying to lure votes for himself, Sarkozy is using his rightward tilt to try to prevent the surging FN leader Marine Le Pen from sneaking past him in the first round of voting to qualify for the second spot in the two-person presidential runoff on May 6. To lose the presidency would be bad enough for Sarkozy; to not even make it to the runoff would be a complete humiliation.

While Sarkozy's rightward turn has coincided with polling gains — he's now predicted to tie Hollande at about 27.5% in the first round of voting, with Le Pen a distant third at 17% — it hasn't lured enough FN defectors to prevent his projected double-digit defeat in the runoff. That could change. On March 21, French police located a man — apparently a Muslim extremist — who they believe killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in Toulouse. The events in Toulouse may boost Sarkozy's status as a fast-acting leader, or unleash questions about how an apparently known radical could have mounted a murderous spree on his watch. Alternatively, the drama could enhance Le Pen's claims that she's the true anti-Muslim candidate — or lend credence to earlier charges by Hollande that stigmatization of minorities by the FN and Sarkozy have increased social divisions.

Whatever the political impact of the Toulouse killings, it is likely too late in the game for Sarkozy to pull back from his high-risk shift to the right. That gamble will either result in a resounding repudiation and a one-term presidency or a spectacular comeback confirming Sarkozy's singular status as the most magisterial French politician of his generation.