Beware of Riling France's President

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Sarkozy speaks his mind.

What's French for "be careful what you wish for?" Just ask the 19 million voters who flocked to the straight-talking, populist presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy last spring. Many of them apparently now find themselves mortified by their president's flashy private life and penchant for talking trash. Recent surveys show Sarkozy's approval rating falling to new lows of 38%, and pollsters are attributing the decline to voters' spying a vulgarity in their president incompatible with their standards for the office. Apparently, Sarkozy isn't getting the message. On the weekend jaws dropped anew as he publicly insulted an anonymous detractor as a "poor a**hole."

The verbal altercation took place Saturday at France's annual farmers' congress, where the president was rebuffed during a round of glad-handing by an older man, who said, "Don't touch me, you make me dirty." Visibly piqued, Sarkozy twice ordered the man to "bugger off," the second time adding the insult usually reserved for locker rooms and school yards. Though the incident took only seconds, the exchange was immortalized on camera and uploaded to the web site of French daily Le Parisien, where it had been viewed nearly a million times by Monday morning. Against a background of sliding poll numbers, the video turned the verbal swipe into a political event.

"He's failing to fulfill the responsibilities he was given," pronounced Socialist party leader François Hollande, gleefully lecturing Sarkozy — who has promised to restore civic discipline — that a politician "can't enter into conflict with someone who won't shake your hand." Sarkozy's conservative backers played the altercation the opposite way. Employment Minister Xavier Bertrand complained about the inordinate attention the spat had generated, though noted people "don't have the right to humiliate the president" with comments he qualified as "hurtful." Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier also cast his boss as a victim in the affair, saying, "I sense the French people have had enough of the systematic aggressiveness towards Nicolas Sarkozy (and) the government."

Where Sarkozy's blunt speech and take-charge manner had earlier won him cheers, polls suggest that those qualities now strike many French voters as intemperate, belligerent and undignified. This weekend's incident was not the first. During a visit last November to a Breton fishing port, one fisherman's taunts and insults got so under the president's skin that he dared his heckler to come face him. During his first major press conference as president in January, Sarkozy took such deep exception to questions from journalists he considered unfriendly that some of his replies struck observers as petulant and belittling.

Another former Sarkozy plus now playing out as a negative is his tendency to aggregate power, often at the expense of cabinet ministers who traditionally handle day to day governing. Last week Sarkozy surprised a meeting of Jewish leaders by announcing plans to raise awareness of the Holocaust by requiring elementary school students to "adopt" the life and death of a child killed during the Shoah. Had Sarkozy bothered to consult more widely before making the announcement, he might have avoided the storm of criticism calling the plan inappropriate and potentially traumatic for such young children. He has since modified that proposal in the face of polls showing 61% of the French public hostile to the idea.

But if Sarkozy's style and omnipotence are chilling his relation with French voters, polls suggest they've been a tonic to his Prime Minister, François Fillon. The most recent polls show Fillon's popularity surging seven percentage points to 57% — a record-setting 19% gap between a French president and his hand-picked prime minister. Fillon was belittled as staid, wonkish and boring during Sarkozy's glittering first six months in power, but now he is enjoying a reputation as a solid, industrious executor of policy who tends to shun the bright lights now trained on the president. Perhaps there's a lesson there for Sarkozy.