By Peter Wilkinson, CNN: Until last month the conventional wisdom was that Nicolas Sarkozy would fail in his bid for a second term as French president.
Mocked for his lavish lifestyle, and a private life that saw him divorce his second wife immediately after his election in 2007 and go on to marry singer Carla Bruni, the French have never warmed to “Sarko.” He is often known as “quel q’un qui derange,” someone who drives you crazy.
The reason for their mixed feelings about Sarkozy is his apparent desire to ruffle feathers and challenge the established order. His presidency has been in constant motion: the 35-hour week? Sarkozy worked against it. Delay the retirement age beyond 60? Sarkozy achieved it, despite strikes and demonstrations. A bloated public sector? Sarkozy eliminated 160,000 civil service jobs.
None of these reforms was universally popular and some, at least initially, were almost universally condemned. But Sarkozy believed them necessary and persisted in his belief that his countrymen would come round to his way of thinking.However, as the eurozone crisis swirled, the president received a jolt in January when one of the world’s top credit ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded France’s rating from the maximum Triple A status. Sarkozy’s main rival, center left candidate Francois Hollande, launched a scathing attack on the government’s policies, saying: “We are no longer in the first division.”
Then came the killings in March of seven people, including three young children, by an Islamic extremist in Toulouse and Montauban. Election campaigning was suspended by most candidates, but as incumbent president, Sarkozy was praised for his sure-footed handling of the crisis.
Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson noted that Sarkozy had already started tracking to the right well before the election, launching attacks on multiculturalism. He complained about France having too many foreigners and not integrating them properly, and accused butchers of supplying only halal meat to Parisians.
“Sarkozy has the reputation of being a terrific political schemer,” he said. “There was even a rumor that the downfall of [former International Monetary Fund chief] Dominique Strauss-Kahn was orchestrated by Sarkozy.
“But in this case it’s not as though he’s being opportunistic, as he’s going with the understandable public reaction against the appalling crimes committed by Mohammed Merah, who killed in cold blood.”
How will shootings affect French election?
The president undoubtedly received a boost as the massacre diverted attention away from the financial crisis, but the economy and job security remain the main concern of most voters. “Sarkozy is in an awkward position, and the economy will still be ultimately decisive in the election,” Ferguson told CNN.
“Sarkozy staked his reputation on the Triple A rating of France as a sovereign borrower. That was falling apart in an ugly way when the terrorist attacks happened, so Sarkozy can’t be entirely sorry that events have taken this turn, horrendous though those events were. It could still swing it his way.”Remember Merah was under surveillance so I think if he’d been arrested before he killed, Sarkozy’s position would be altogether more dire. While the polls have Hollande winning the first round, the momentum is now with Sarkozy.”
And coming from behind is something Sarkozy has always revelled in. Now he says that in troubled times, an experienced fighter is what France needs.
At one giant campaign rally, Sarkozy told his followers that if they want to win they will have to get to work, convincing their compatriots to make their choice for president on what his party leader says is the only realistic basis.
Jean-Francois Cope, president of the center-right UMP party, asked: “The real criterion is: who is the guy most able to lead the country in this difficult period that we have to face? It’s the only argument.”
And if the UMP’s campaign theme music sounds vaguely like something from a Sylvester Stallone movie, it’s probably no accident. Sarkozy has always been ready to do battle.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, who did not go to one of France’s elite schools, Sarkozy fought his way to the top of politics by sheer strength of will. The smartest kid in the class, as some describe him, but not always the most popular. But still his supporters believe Sarkozy’s performance will convince his countrymen.
“At the end of the day I think the most important achievement is the capacity to face the crisis… to give the new impetus when it’s necessary,” said Cope.
“Remember after the financial crisis of 2008… the crisis in Georgia in 2007, remember the question of Greece, the European governance, his capacity to work very close to [German Chancellor] Angela Markel in order to find the best solution. We can be confident because we speak for people who are conscious about the importance of the challenge that they have to face.”
Incumbents, analysts say, should always run down their opponents and run away from their track record. Sarkozy is following the first bit of that advice but ignoring the second, a high-risk strategy that may or may not win him a second term in the Elysee Palace.
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