Sarko-Fatigue in a Ghetto of the Rich

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Witt / SIPA

David Martinon campaigns in Neuillly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, France.

Running for office in Neuilly-sur-Seine ought to be a slam dunk for any well-connected conservative politician. The Paris suburb is an oasis of affluence, distinguished families and ponderous quantities of old money, and has always been kind to candidates of the right. It was here, some 25 years ago, that an ambitious conservative youth leader named Nicolas Sarkozy ran for mayor, and for the next 19 years Neuilly's unwavering support served as the base of his campaign for higher office. So, it may be a sign of how far the fortunes of (now President) Sarkozy have fallen that his party's candidate for mayor of Neuilly, David Martinon, has quit his campaign for next month's municipal elections after encountering formidable opposition precisely because of his close ties to the man now in the Elysée Palace.

When introduced to the grandees of "Sarkoville" by Sarkozy himself last September as the mayoral candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party, Martinon may have imagined himself a shoo-in. But even during that announcement, he was heckled by a group of angry conservative voters chanting "Marti-non! Non! Non!" The reason for the local resistance? Anger over having Martinon — a longtime Sarkozy adviser and current presidential spokesman — be handed the nomination many locals believe should go to outgoing deputy mayor, Arnaud Teullé. Teullé and other local UMP officials soon accepted Martinon's being parachuted into the safe seat by the national party, but they failed to diffuse ambient resentment to him.

"The parachuting undoubtedly surprised and hurt some, but it served as a reminder I've got to convince each and every Neuilly voter to back me," acknowledged Martinon recently, saying his own experience as a campaigner had taught him that the best way of losing an election is taking its outcome for granted. "The animosity in Neuilly is passing, but the bar remains high, because people here expect a lot from their mayor. I never thought this would be an easy campaign — and I was right."

Martinon had no idea just how difficult things would get. Though the UMP big guns have flocked to praise Martinon's merits during rallies, his campaign stalled. That sluggishness continued despite Sarkozy's own 21-year-old Neuilly-born and -bred son, Jean, taking on an energetic and high-profile role in the campaign. This weekend, concern that the city that last elected Sarkozy mayor in 2001 with a 76% score (and gave him identical backing in last year's presidential race) may yet snub his anointed successor began skyrocketing.

On Saturday, the daily Le Figaro published a leaked private UMP poll of Neuilly voters projecting a Martinon defeat in the first round of balloting to a quixotic local independent Conservative candidate. The high probability that backers of candidates eliminated in the first stage would vote to defeat Martinon in the second, Le Figaro contended, meant "Sarkozy has hardly any choice but to pull Martinon" from the race. The risk of not doing so, the paper quoted a presidential advisor explaining, was taking a humiliating "slap in the face." Mindful of that peril, Neuilly's UMP brass teamed up with Jean Sarkozy on Sunday to announce they were dumping Martinon to launch a rival campaign — doubtless with the president's blessing. On Monday morning, Martinon called it quits in Neuilly, but did say Sarkozy had rejected his resignation as presidential spokesman.

That left the nation's pundits gazing on in astonishment at the possibility the divided UMP might still manage to lose this so-called "ghetto of the rich". Because if Neuilly isn't safe for the UMP, no place is. Perched on the capital's western perimeter, with the leafy, sprawling Bois de Boulogne on its southern flank, Neuilly is a kind of Parisian Upper East Side: a quick commute to downtown offices, and a quiet residential enclave whose location gives residents a jump start on the Friday rush to Normandy beach homes. It was here, among the French film stars, CEOs and idle rich, that rogue trader Jérome Kerviel rented an apartment as he sought to make a fortune of this own. Neuilly never votes left, and it owes its national renown to local boy gone big — Sarkozy. So where does Neuilly's hostility to candidates with Elysée ties come from?

Mainly, Sarkozy himself — and his plunging approval ratings: a 22-point slide since his election, now whimpering at a mere 41% support. Growing discontent over his leadership has raised the threat that voters will use the nationwide municipal poll to rebuke their President. Should that happen, candidates considered Sarkozy intimates — including Justice Minister Rachida Dati, and Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade — are at risk. But perhaps no one loomed larger as a target for anti-Sarkozy anger than Martinon. For that reason, the President must think carefully about appointing the person most frequently cited to replace Martinon as candidate in Neuilly: Jean Sarkozy.