The man who promised to reform France looks set to become a martyr to the euro – and his own abrasive personality

Paris
Nicolas Sarkozy chose an unpropitious week to tell the French public he wanted to be their president for another five years. As Sarko was granting a semi-official interview to Le Figaro, addressing the nation on television and planning his campaign’s first rally for the weekend in Marseille, the bad news kept rolling in. Qantas found cracks in the wings of an Airbus 380 superjumbo jet, and European aviation officials ordered them to be recalled for tests, dampening the spirits of French jet engineers. Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, a landmark of French modern architecture (albeit one that no one would wish to live in), caught fire in Marseilles. Moody’s warned that it would cut France’s credit rating. The agency also put Britain and Austria in its sights, giving Sarkozy and David Cameron something else to talk about during Cameron’s visit to Paris this week.

You see more people sleeping on Paris’s pavements nowadays, and meet fewer people in its bars who have a kind word for their president. A Harris Interactive poll this week showed Sarkozy would win 24 per cent in the first round of the upcoming presidential elections, which are to be held on 22 April. That puts him four points behind his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, and four points ahead of Marine Le Pen of the newly salonfähig National Front. In a one-on-one contest he’d lose to Hollande by 57 to 43.

Ordinarily, it would be foolish to count out the only politician on the European centre-right whom friend and foe describe as a ‘magical’ campaigner. What is more, Sarkozy has reassembled the same savvy team of ideologues and wordsmiths who worked the magic last time. There is the interior and immigration minister, Claude Guéant, thrower-down of gauntlets to the politically correct, and the speechwriter Henri Guaino. There is the adviser on polling and public opinion, Patrick Buisson, who counts among his works a two-volume history of sex under the German occupation.

Sarko’s brains trust want to move him to the right. Last time he won a tightly fought victory against a mostly united left by railing against crime and welfare sponging, and defending ‘the France that rises early’. That allowed him to peel away half the votes of the National Front. But its aged leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been replaced by his daughter Marine. She is quick-witted and endowed with an appealing programme of protectionist economics. She is also disinclined to blurt out things that would make an ordinary bourgeois embarrassed to admit to voting for her. (But she has not yet managed to get the 500 signatures from elected officials that are necessary to get her name on the ballot.) The Front voters who defected in 2007 have returned home.

To win them back, Sarkozy must campaign on the right as if, this time, he really means it. His Figaro interview was called ‘My Values for France’. Sarkozy has opposed gay marriage with enough fire that his party’s gay caucus has withdrawn its support for him. He has suggested a popular referendum about what kind of penalties to impose on unemployed people who refuse a job. He wants ‘special jurisdiction’ for trials involving immigrants, the removal of privileges for foreigners married to French people, and a tightening of funds for asylum-seekers. Those are all vote-winners.

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Sarkozy and his camp are taking heat from the other parties. After Guéant let drop a remark that, as regards women’s rights, ‘not all civilisations are equal’, Serge Letchimy, a Socialist from Martinique, accused him of Nazi sympathies on the floor of the National Assembly. ‘Day after day,’ Letchimy complained, ‘you bring us back to those European ideologies that led to the concentration camps.’ The government walked out of the Assembly, the first time that has happened since the Dreyfus affair.

Ordinarily, that sort of dust-up would work to Sarkozy’s benefit. But there are signs that voters have closed their ears to him. If you ask almost anyone in France why they plan to vote against Sarko, your interlocutor will invariably refer to Fouquet’s, the exclusive watering hole on the Champs-Elysées. This is surprising, since it refers to an episode not just from the first months or years of Sarkozy’s mandate but the first minutes. Sarkozy went there at the invitation of the owner, Dominique Desseigne, chairman of the Barrière group of casinos, to celebrate his 2007 election victory with France’s elites. He left tens of thousands of his less well-heeled supporters milling about in the Place de la Concorde, and earned himself the nickname le président des riches. So the way people have gone off him is personal, rather than ideological. You understand the difference: Barack Obama angered Catholics by trying to force their hospitals to offer birth control; Sarkozy angered Catholics by checking his email during an audience with the Pope.

One top UMP aide, someone I have always liked for his frankness, told me over coffee on Tuesday that if Sarko had done more in the past five years, perhaps people would have found something to talk about besides Fouquet’s. Most French people give him credit for raising the age of retirement, and thus allowing the country to save money on pensions. But beyond that, his legacy is one of small reforms. Military bases closing, university rules, minimum sentencing for certain crimes — worthy initiatives all, but hardly the ‘rupture’ promised when he came to power in 2007.

Ivan Rioufol, a Figaro columnist who has just published a book called The Urgency of Being Reactionary, says people feel let down by two things in particular. First, that Sarkozy got bullied out of a discussion of ‘national identity’ early in his term by opponents accusing him of racism. Second, that after a 2005 referendum in which 55 per cent of French rejected the proposed constitution, saying no to further European integration, Sarkozy allowed key parts of the constitution to be passed by treaty, over their heads.

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The French, naturally, think about Europe a lot. There has been much talk over the past week about the imminence of Friday 17 February — not any saint’s day or anniversary but the last day on which French people could redeem their old franc banknotes for euros. Although 81 per cent of French people want to stay in the euro, they seem to want it all to themselves, or at least to keep it to rich countries. Three quarters of the French also say they want to get closer to Germany. But this ‘getting closer’ takes the form of emulation, not co-operation. The emergence of Germany as Europe’s undisputed leader, and the relegation of France to a role as junior partner, is a national humiliation. Sarkozy is the first French leader to have felt he needs an election endorsement from his German counterpart. ‘The most important thing in this campaign,’ said Sarkozy’s long-time prime minister, François Fillon, ‘is the future of the European project.’ It may be the most important thing to Li’l Sarko, Merkel’s sidekick. It is not the most important thing to French people, as referendums allow us to measure it.

Europe is killing Sarkozy. It really ought to be killing the Socialists more, though. It is they who dragged France deeper into its structures in the Mitterrand years. Hollande’s party friends call him, with a distant look of piety in their eyes, ‘the spiritual son of Jacques Delors’, the architect of many European Union institutions, including the euro. This is probably meant to distinguish Hollande from his party rival Martine Aubry, who is the biological daughter of Jacques Delors. But at a time when Delors’s machinery seems to be hurrying Europe towards penury and civilisational collapse, people tend not to brag about b
eing Delors offspring of any kind. The Socialist party was badly riven by that 2005 referendum, between party elitists who favoured transferring more power to Brussels and party populists who saw it as an engine of capitalism.

François Hollande is sometimes taken for a nonentity, a bore. In a television poll that asked viewers to name ‘France’s sexiest candidate’, he got 2 per cent. (The former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin lapped the field with 22 per cent.) When IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s inevitable-looking candidacy blew up over a New York sex scandal, Hollande was pencilled in as a placeholder for the party’s centrist wing. He is an ENArque, as graduates of the elite École Nationale d’Administration are called. He was the less assertive of the two partners in his decades-long common-law power marriage to Ségolène Royal. She got the party’s presidential nomination last time around, losing to Sarkozy in the 2007 election. The couple split a few weeks after that.

But Hollande has turned out to be a canny campaigner. The Socialists believe the election will be theirs as long as they don’t make any big blunders. Hollande is the man for that. He has not made much of Sarkozy’s controversial decision to bring France into Nato. He has said nothing too gushingly Europhile. He has called the EU’s Greek austerity plan a ‘purge’. His threat to renegotiate the Brussels bailout pact Sarkozy recently agreed would leave him closer to Cameron than to Merkel, assuming he is sincere. (Not many observers think he is.)

Should Sarkozy lose, his backers fear a ‘one-party state’. Although Socialists got barely a quarter of the vote in the presidential first round in 2007, they control many of the country’s institutions. A victory for Hollande in the presidential race would probably bring a victory in legislative elections thereafter. If that happens, my UMP friend said on Tuesday, ‘They will control the presidency, the assembly, the senate, the regions, the departments, the mayors, the council — everything!’ The systemic ‘rupture’ that Sarkozy promised on his arrival may come with his departure.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated