The French, who do things differently, believe that Friday the 13th is a lucky day. Key rings and other amulets often sport a 13, sales of lottery tickets soar on that day—newspapers have already published the happy information that there will be no less than four of them this year. But Friday, January 13, brought a nasty omen for President Nicolas Sarkozy. France, to his considerable annoyance, saw its credit rating downgraded from AAA to AA+ by Standard & Poor's.
No matter that the U.S. last year showed there is life after a ratings downgrade. Few Americans no-ticed, the Cardinals won the World Series, and the holiday season rolled merrily on. Not in France. The triple A was, Sarkozy's minions had declared repeatedly, a "national treasure" to be preserved at all costs. That was the stated reason for two back-to-back austerity programs—including raising the retirement age and paying higher value-added taxes on basic consumer items like food and beverages—to reduce France's budget deficit and cut its unsustainable national debt. Those hurt, but it was the price the French had to pay to keep that iconic rating, their president explained.
For Sarkozy personally, it was a badge of honor, gilt-edged proof that he could successfully steer the good ship France through Europe's economic storm and deal as an equal with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. In terms of sheer politics, a downgrade risked being seen by voters in the April presidential election as a thumbs down on his whole five-year term. So much was at stake, he told his cabinet last summer, that "if we lose our triple A, I'm dead."
He lost it, and only 100 days before the ballot. Thus the visible consternation at the Elysée Palace, with scrambling cabinet ministers and advisors going into full damage control mode. Some vented their anger at this American ratings agency that was obviously playing anti-French politics. After all, another rating agency, Fitch, had assured French authorities that it wouldn't touch the triple A in 2012. (It's surely just a coincidence that Fitch belongs to a French owner, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.) "We should have hit them hard over their mistakes during the subprime crisis two years ago," clamored one. Sarkozy himself appeared in denial, insisting at a press conference that "it changes nothing." Asked whether the downgrade was a sign of failure that might reduce his influence in Europe, he testily replied that he did not understand the question. "Ask me a question I can understand," he snarled.
Sarkozy's opponents jumped on the downgrade as a godsend and painted it as an unmitigated disaster. "It's Sarkozy's policies that have been downgraded, not France itself," said Socialist Party candidate François Hollande. "It's the first time since rating agencies exist that France has been rated lower than Germany. We don't play in the first division anymore." The right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen called it "the end of the myth of the president who protects us," adding, "France is now on the same down staircase as Italy and Greece."
What no politician had the courage to say was that the French are witnessing, in slow motion, the end of their welfare state, known locally as the French Social Model. For the last 30 years it has been sustained through political sleight of hand and financed on credit. The French were assured they were entitled to work only 35 hours a week, take five weeks vacation, have single payer health care, pocket generous unemployment benefits, and enjoy a cornucopia of handout programs. As a result, they work on average six fewer weeks a year than the Germans, fewer hours even than the laidback Greeks. Let the good times roll was the implicit program of politicians both left and right. Now the inevitable bill is coming due right at election time. There's no way Sarkozy can avoid paying the political price.
As this campaign churns on, French voters aren't likely to hear such home truths from either Sarkozy or his main opponent, Hollande. A lifelong Socialist apparatchik, Hollande learned his politics in the 1970s and '80s from that consummate welfare fabulist, François Mitterrand, and headed the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008. A bland, bespectacled 57-year-old with all the charisma of your local high school principal, he has never held a cabinet post. Segolène Royal, Hollande's former live-in mistress, mother of their four children, and unsuccessful Socialist Party presidential candidate in the 2007 election (they split immediately after the ballots were in), now says with all the contempt of a scorned woman, "Can the French people name a single thing he has achieved in 30 years in politics?" Asked about his rival, Sarkozy mocks, "Do you see this sugar cube? It seems solid enough. Plunge it in water and see what's left. That's Hollande."
But with national distaste for the twitchy Sarkozy running high, the Socialist candidate may just be able to turn his image as an ordinary guy—think an unprepossessing Mr. Normal who rides a scooter to the office vs. an agitated Super Sarko who relishes traveling the world in his new presidential jet—to his advantage. He consistently leads Sarkozy in the polls after a politically savvy makeover, shedding 20 pounds, donning designer eyeglasses, and modeling his body language and intonations on Mitterrand. And he can mock Sarkozy right back. In an off-record parody of Sarkozy's plea to voters, he mimicked, "I'm a president who has failed for five years; I'm a jerk, but re-elect me because in these hard times, I'm the only one who can do it."
Nipping at the heels of both Sarkozy and Hollande, only a couple of points behind, is Marine Le Pen. With contempt for politicians growing even faster in France than in the U.S., her pungent populist platform calling for ending the euro and returning to the French franc, restricting immigration, and protecting French industries from foreign competition is gaining traction by the day.
One poll showed that 31 percent of voters agreed with her ideas, up from 22 percent a year ago and 11 percent in 1999. "We are witnessing a de-demonization of the NF," says one pollster, referring to the legitimacy the charismatic Le Pen, 43, has been able to give the party since taking it over from her pugnacious, unelectable father, Jean-Marie. Those figures don't take into account the silent constituency that still doesn't like to admit they plan to vote for the Front. With the NF now a mainstream party, few analysts would be surprised if she made it into the runoff second round on May 6—and not against Sarkozy, but Hollande. "The game is wide open at this point," says one.
Some of Sarkozy's tone-deaf moves give the impression of a political death wish. One recent trial balloon had him favoring homosexual marriage or some sort of civil union equivalent in his platform. Nothing could be better designed to alienate his conservative core constituency. Then the interest rate on savings accounts, which is set by the government twice a year based on a mathematical formula including inflation, was not raised on February 1 as everyone expected. With inflation running at its highest level in three years, public disappointment—nearly all French have one of these tax-free accounts, a traditional gift to newborn babies—was sharp. If Sarkozy wanted to drive voters into the arms of a right-wing populist like Le Pen, he couldn't have done better.
Such incomprehensible sallies have made many of his countrymen doubt that he would run for a second term. His game of political hide-and-seek hasn't helped. He was expected to declare after he wound up France's G20 presidency last November, but did not. Then as the list of candidates lengthened into a field of nearly 20 from parties of all stripes, he remained silent. (Within his own UMP party there are eight hopefuls not counting him, showing serious divisions within his ranks and his inability to corral his supporters.) The expectation as of this writing was that he would declare in early March and conduct a lightning campaign.
It would be an uphill slog. Instead of benefiting from the usual advantages of the incumbent, Sarkozy, his numbers languishing in the low 30s, bears the burden of being the most unpopular president since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. The French simply do not like him as a person. He was elected faute de mieux when the Socialists foolishly put up Segolène Royal against him. Then he rubbed them the wrong way the very night of his election when he celebrated tastelessly at a glitzy Champs-Elysées watering hole with an unsavory cohort of business and show biz pals. From then on, whether being ostentatiously dumped by his wife Cécilia, publicly courting the Italian model-turned-pop singer Carla Bruni, or generally acting in ways the French found unpresidential, enmity grew.
Then there is the bad smell of unending corruption scandals that have marred his term, with hardly a month going by without new allegations: that a billionaire heiress illegally financed his political career; that the government carried out illegal spying on a Le Monde journalist to plug a leak; that he was involved in the "Karachi affair" of alleged kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan; that his wife was implicated in a charity funding scandal with millions of euros funneled to close friends and favored companies. To name a few. They made a mockery of Sarkozy's promise to make France an "irreproachable republic."
Similarly, the French won't forgive his failure to deliver on more bread-and-butter promises. He was going to be "the buying power president," but incomes have stagnated while inflation rose. He was going to effect a "rupture" with the past, modernizing France's state-dominated economy, reforming taxes, getting rid of the debilitating 35-hour workweek, reducing bureaucracy. None of this happened on his watch. Most visibly he promised to clean up the country's increasingly violent crime so citizens could take public transport without being attacked, park their car in the street overnight without having it burned, leave their house with a good chance it won't be burgled. But violent crime has increased 22 percent over the past decade, burglaries were up 16 percent just last year, and tens of thousands of automobiles continue to burn annually.
Although he is a formidable campaigner and never better than with his back to the wall, this leaves Sarkozy with very little to run on. Not only is he personally disliked and his record disappointing, but now the humiliating S&P downgrade means he cannot even claim to be a safe pair of hands protecting France during Europe's economic crisis. But maybe he still has one ploy in reserve to make a Lazarus-like comeback. So far, he and Carla have refused to allow photographers access to their daughter Giulia, born last October, making Sarkozy the first serving president to become a father. Could some cuddly magazine-cover photos of him en famille produce a vote-getting baby bounce? His aides are said to be quietly hoping so.