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"The problem is, Sarkozy's [Monday night] comments came within a context of such reoccurring scandal that they seemed incredible [because they went] against the grain of everything the public has heard in the past several weeks," says Denis Muzet, president of Paris-based Médiascopie, which conducts qualitative public response to current events using control groups. "Sarkozy is a great performer, but his repertoire is too limited, and few people bought [Monday's] act."
Blame that on the disgruntlement that continues to rise as Sarkozy introduces deficit-battling austerity measures while refusing to roll back tax cuts that detractors say benefit the rich. (Bettencourt's rebate under those very tax cuts, for example, has amounted to $30 million annually). The public now views much of the political class as untrustworthy. And that view has colored the reaction to Sarkozy's TV appearance, with radio shows and Internet forums Tuesday mocking the President's assurances that "France is not a corrupt country." Sarkozy's characterization of the abuse of lavish perks by French office-holders as "bad habits that we have to put an end to" similarly provoked amazement, as did his ignoring his own well-established reputation as a "bling-bling" leader who flaunts his wealthy friends and millionaire wife, and his claim that "If I'd been a money man, I'd have ... had a different career."
"The image the public has formed of the President over the past three years is of a man who likes wealth, is proud of having rich friends and maintaining close ties with leaders of business and finance, and whose action is guided less by the general interest than those of the affluent group he admires," Muzet says. "Consequently, when he now says 'money doesn't interest me,' much of the public hears 'I'm obsessed with money.'"
And that may cost him. The latest opinion polls show Sarkozy's approval rating at a record 26% low, down from highs of nearly 60% in the several months after his May 2007 presidential win. More damning still, a simulated presidential race held by polling agency CSA and published July 9 showed that, were the French to vote today, Socialist leader Aubry would beat Sarkozy in a bid for the Elysée. True, there are still two years until that vote happens in reality, but before Sarkozy can hope to turn his image around, Muzet says he must escape the "autistic state" that prevents him from seeing himself in the same negative light that the French public does.