Nothing in his presidency became it like the leaving it. “I take full responsibility for this defeat,” Nicolas Sarkozy declared Sunday evening as results from second-round ballot showed that Socialist François Hollande would be France’s new chief of state. “I did everything I could to defend our party’s ideals. Now the French people have made their choice, there is a new president, and he is to be respected.” The tone was statesmanlike, a dignified class act. After five hectic, erratic, politically self-destructive years in the Elysée Palace, when he seemed indifferent to the impact of his words and actions on public opinion, Sarkozy had finally learned to be presidential.
His term was a case study in how to disorient and finally alienate those who believed in him and voted him into office. His defeat, making him only the second one-term president in the history of the Fifth Republic — the first was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, beaten by another Socialist, François Mitterrand, in 1981 — was an astonishing fall from grace. This pugnacious, dynamic, brazenly ambitious son of a Hungarian immigrant came into office with a sound conservative program. He promised to bring real change to French politics. He was determined to lead, push, and coax a stagnant France out of its state-dependent slough of politco-socio-economic despond.
Early polls ranked him the most popular president since Charles de Gaulle 40 years ago. “The French people have chosen change,” he declared on his victory night in May 2007. He pledged to “break with the ideas, the habits, and the behavior of the past.” He praised “those who get up early to go to work,” vowed to encourage entrepreneurship. With his free-market ideals and vocal admiration for the U.S., pundits dubbed this edgy outsider who had not gone to the right elite schools, this self-described “little Frenchman of mixed blood,” l’américain. He took it as a compliment. He began his first day in office jogging in a T-shirt emblazoned NYPD.
He made some right moves. Public sector workers went on strike over his reform of their generous retirement benefits? He faced them down. He correctly identified France’s absurd, Socialist-decreed 35-hour work week as an obstacle to prosperity, and took initial steps to end it. The labor market was too rigid; he made it easier to hire and fire. Retirement age was increased from 60 to 62. He ended France’s knee-jerk anti-Americanism, bringing it back into NATO’s integrated military command.
Sarkozy also got credit for banning the controversial head-to-toe burqa worn by some women in France’s growing Muslim community, and cleaning out gypsy settlements that were causing trouble. Along with Germany’s Angela Merkel he helped cool Europe’s sovereign debt fever and stabilize the euro. Although he initially missed the importance of the Arab Spring, he later prompted the military campaign against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But while this was going on, he was losing contact with the French themselves. For one thing, they couldn’t keep up with this man in motion, whose basic political tactic was to keep moving and produce new programs, proposals, and laws as fast as possible. Those initiatives went by so fast in a blur that they were often unperceived and unappreciated. For another thing, the French soon came to find the man’s personal style, or lack thereof, repugnant.
They could accept that he was hyperactive, with an endless supply of new ideas and projects — including, unfortunately, doubling his salary to $360,000 and ordering up a fancy new presidential jet modeled on Air Force One. But in this country where the chief of state is endowed with the majestic trappings of monarchy, they could not admit that he appeared grasping, common, gauche. In a word, unpresidential. It was Nicolas Sarkozy’s political tragedy that a man so in love for decades with the idea of becoming president that he confessed he thought about it every morning while shaving, was unable make the transition to presidential class once elected. Strange to tell, this man with three decades of political experience appeared to lack political instinct.
To start with, there was his turbulent, and very public, love life. Everyone knew that Cécilia, his second wife and mother of their 11-year-old son, left him briefly for another man in 2005, while he consoled himself with a political journalist. But when the capricious lady humiliatingly repeated that caper only weeks after he was sworn in, they were embarrassed. And taking up on the rebound with an Italian model-cum pop singer, an acknowledged man-eater who declared “Monogamy bores me terribly,” was a bit much even for the broad-minded French. The derisive giggling began when he giddily announced at a press conference, “With Carla, it’s serious.” Like some love-sick adolescent. “It’s Snow White marrying the dwarf,” quipped one comic, wickedly referring to his diminutive stature and tango-dancer elevator heels.
Ever conscious of their image in the world, the French were even more distressed that their president was being mocked in the foreign press. Italy’s La Repubblica noted with distaste that the man sitting “on De Gaulle’s throne” was “a shirt-sleeved president in Hollywood sunglasses who received his ministers with his feet on his desk, using the familiar tu form of address with everyone.” German newspapers found him “shameless, irritating, narcissistic, a new Napoleon.” They noted that Chancellor Angela Merkel disliked his familiar manners, especially the way he hugged and kissed her on both cheeks at every summit. The British press, miffed that he had dared respond to the Queen’s formal invitation to visit by cutting his stay a day short, dismissed him as “a soap opera star.” Worried a senior advisor at the French Institute for International Relations, “Can he incarnate France with dignity and legitimacy?”
Then, too, the man was just plain unpleasant. Not the sort you would want to have a friendly drink with. Unlike successful politicos the world over, he couldn’t even pretend to like people in general. Seemed to scowl more easily than smile. Known for a hair-trigger temper, he stormed out of an interview with CBS when an American journalist dared ask a question he found offensive. His own staff he berated as imbeciles, cretins, and worse. When a member of the public at an agricultural fair declined to shake his hand, Sarkozy tongue-lashed him, “Go to hell, you poor bastard!” Some began to wonder whether the nuclear button was safe with someone so irritable and impulsive. Others wondered what he was smoking.
His popularity plunged from a record 67 percent to a low of 37 in his first year. His own electorate began to turn against him. In the first municipal ballot of his term, some candidates in his UMP party quietly asked him to avoid campaigning for them and deleted the party logo from their leaflets. In a sign of political failures to come, they lost 38 of France’s largest cities and towns to the Socialists. It was an early, stinging rebuke to Sarkozy.
Allegations involving dirty money dogged him all during his term. There was the so-called Karachi case, a murky affair centering on kickbacks on a 1994 sale of three French submarines to Pakistan. The money, it was charged, went to fund the 1995 presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur, of which Sarkozy was financial director. His own campaign in 2007 came under official scrutiny due to claims that Sarkozy had received millions in illegal contributions from Lillian Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oreal fortune and France’s wealthiest woman. This spring, a Paris investigative news site published an Arab-language document purporting to prove that he had accepted over $60 million from Muammar Gaddafi to finance his 2007 election. With several investigations ongoing, none of these allegations has been proven. But Sarkozy’s need to constantly counter such charges was a constant distraction from the business of governing — and from campaigning for re-election.
He delayed the start of that campaign until the beginning of this year, far later than his advisors wanted, and spurring speculation that he might not want to risk rejection due to his unpopularity. When it did begin it was often ill-tempered and belligerent. It also bore the mark of improvisation. Battling a 64 percent disapproval rating and polls that consistently showed François Hollande winning by a comfortable margin, Sarkozy erratically changed direction and sprang new programs and promises almost daily. Mainly he veered further and further right in hope of siphoning off votes from the National Front (a disastrous tactic that cost him vital votes from the moderate center and independents), hammering the message that he would save France from Islamists. He would cut immigration by half, closing France’s borders, in violation of European Union agreements, if necessary.
Grasping at straws late in the campaign, he attempted, unconvincingly, to cast himself as the people’s candidate. He used a video showing him with Barack Obama, suggesting that the American president backed him. He made excuses for his record, claiming that he was distracted early in his term by his failing marriage, and had to deal with the world financial crisis. In the campaign’s final days he resorted to that tired old loser’s pose: he was the victim of a biased media that hated him. His supporters physically harassed journalists at his rallies.
Sarkozy’s last hope was a knockout blow at the single televised debate on May 2 with François Hollande, who was running as a calm, easygoing Monsieur Normal. He and his inept staff thought the Socialist was a creampuff who would buckle under attack. Another miscalculation. It quickly turned ugly as Sarkozy called Hollande arrogant and other names, and repeatedly shouted “Liar! Slanderer!” in reply to his remarks. It didn’t work as the Socialist kept his cool and mocked Sarkozy for refusing to stand on his record. A majority of viewers thought Monsieur Normal won.
Having botched his term, Sarkozy has left his UMP party a shambles and France arguably worse off than when he took office. The National Front is now in a position to attract disaffected UMP members and fashion a new conservative party centering on NF programs and values. For the first time in its history, it will likely win seats in the National Assembly in the June legislative elections. As its leader, Marine Le Pen, asked a crowd of supporters, “How does it feel to go from being fascists, racists and xenophobes, to people who are being eagerly courted?”
Sarkozy’s legacy to France is a tarnished presidency, a revived, victorious Socialist Party, and an economy burdened with a record debt of $2.24 trillion and counting, some $500 billion more than the day he took office. Unemployment stands at 10 percent and has been growing by the month. Although he tried to hitch France to the German locomotive, the reality is that it is falling further behind Europe’s economic powerhouse.
A lawyer by trade, the man himself has little to worry about, except possibly those ongoing investigations for alleged corruption. He said this week that he would leave politics permanently. Asked during the campaign what he would do after the presidency, he answered, “Make a lot of dough and live la dolce vita.” Now, rejected by a French electorate he never really connected with, he can be on his way.