Sarkozy's Ministers Face Off

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Remy Gabalda / AP

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Like many a leader before him, French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to work better abroad than at home. Just days after another brilliant performance on the international stage reversed Sarkozy's dizzying approval rating plunge, a new spate of domestic woes risk dragging him down anew. Plagued by a dismal macro-economic outlook that his highly-touted policies and reforms have failed to set right, Sarkozy this week was also tormented by the spectacle of his own cabinet engaging in a nasty public spat. As a result, voters across France are beginning to wonder who they can actually look to for effective leadership.

The dust-up within the government couldn't have come at a worse time for Sarkozy, who earlier this week traveled across France announcing cut-backs and belt-tightening — despite previous assurances that "no austerity program" was on the way. But despite having to deliver bad news to an already hurting public, Sarkozy had some reason for hope. Polls released early this week showed his approval rating rising to 40% in March from February's 37%, the low point in what had been his 30% drop since July. The fillip stemmed from Sarkozy's triumphant state visit to London last month, where his sober demeanor impressed a French public that has wearied of his taste for flash. The "re-presidentialization" of his image seemed to be winning back many of the conservative voters turned off by Sarkozy's earlier "bling-bling" persona; Elysée officials felt they turned the corner after the right's drubbing during nation-wide municipal elections last month.

But that was before a row within the government exploded Wednesday, when junior environment Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet to call fellow conservatives "an army of cowards" after a cock-up involving controversial legislation on genetically modified crops. Kosciusko-Morizet told Le Monde that her immediate boss, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, and parliamentary leader of her own conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Jean-François Copé, had engaged in "a contest of cowardice and inelegance" in cynically refusing to back her up in a tight spot for their own political gain. The spectacle of a cabinet member publicly slagging off her ministerial superior and the majority leader as wimps created a deafening roar on the right.

Outrage at the attack led Prime Minister François Fillon to order Kosciusko-Morizet to issue a public apology for the outburst or be fired if she refused to. Kosciusko-Morizet knuckled under on Wednesday night, though subsequent comments suggested her regret was less than entirely sincere. Other conservatives involved in the melee implied they, too, were neither ready to forgive nor forget. That's bad news for UMP forces.

Sarkozy has made a point lately of assuming a more discreet posture, leaving day-to-day management and communication to his ministers. That has caused the ambition of several government officials to bloom, generating considerable tension between jostling members. Policy announcements by certain ministers have been immediately followed by conflicting responses from others. This week, for example, it was announced then rapidly contradicted that the state would stop subsidizing rail tickets for large families.

Sarkozy's London bounce had given Elysée officials confidence the president could gradually resume his role as both the motor and icon of policy and governmental direction. But the tussles in the cabinet, along with France's lamentable economic situation, may leave Sarkozy no option but to return again to the front lines of government. His cost-cutting announcements this week involved just a few of the 166 programs he's targeted to claw back over $10 billion in annual spending, with the aim of balancing the French budget by 2012. That will provoke considerable pain and resistance from the public, and doubtless more slides in polls. That, in short, is Sarkozy's dilemma: to be an effective, decisive leader, he'll also have to be a very unpopular one.