Sarko is heading for the guillotine

Published in The Daily Mail (April 20th, 2012)

The rally bore all the hallmarks of a president on a triumphant home run back to the Elysee Palace: the adoring crowds chanting his name, the swirling flags, the pounding pop music as Nicolas Sarkozy leapt up the five stairs and took his place by the podium.

He spoke with humour, passion and energy about his background, his love of France, his selfless devotion to duty, his ceaseless determination over his time in office to have done everything possible to protect France and further its interests. This was Sarkozy at his best, a man almost liberated to be back on the campaign trail with his high-octane act days before the first round of the presidential election.

It was suitably fighting talk, given that he was in Arras, the northern town that saw such brutal battles in the world wars; he presented himself almost as an insurgent, rather than the man who has run France these past five years.

As rain lashed down outside the gloomy convention centre, he turned much of his fire on immigrants, attacking those who came to France to milk the welfare system and refused to integrate, a crude appeal to the National Front voters whose heroine, Marine Le Pen, is based a few miles down the road.

‘Don’t leave this election to be stolen,’ he concluded. ‘On Sunday we are going to pull off the greatest surprise that ever happened in French politics.’

The 3,000-strong crowd of supporters, many bussed in from more than 50 miles away, loved it. Students in T-shirts emblazoned with Les Jeunes avec Sarkozy — all artfully positioned for the cameras, of course — enthused afterwards about his energy and his dynamism.

Older voters, many stuffed into Sunday-best suits and still clutching Tricoleur flags, excitedly assured me ‘Nicolas’ was going to defy predictions of doom in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. ‘That was the best speech of the campaign,’ said Hubert Boulangue, retired at 60 from France Telecom. ‘He will win 51 to 49 in the second round.’

Party stalwarts aside, few share Mr Boulangue’s optimism. For France has fallen out of love with the diminutive, egotistical and hyperactive outsider nicknamed President Bling-Bling for his fondness for flashy watches, fast-living and fat cigars.

Polls predict Mr Sarkozy is heading for crushing defeat at the hands of Francois Hollande, his portly and plodding Socialist Party challenger with the cruel soubriquet of Mr Marshmallow. The latest predicted a five-point gap on Sunday, when ten candidates are vying for his job, extending to 16 points in the second round run-off between the top two candidates a week later.

Five years ago, after an exhilarating campaign, Sarkozy aimed to be the most effective president in the history of the Fifth Republic. He styled himself as a Thatcher-like radical who would shake up the sclerotic and swollen French state while reflecting the hopes and fears of ordinary people.

Those days have long gone. For all the fine talk, he has achieved little. His approval ratings dropped to record lows, forcing him to spend the past few weeks apologising for his failures and promising rather pathetically to be ‘a different president’ if given a second chance.

Talking to voters on the streets of Arras and Paris this week, many were infuriated by Sarkozy’s record. There is an anti-politics mood afoot, as in so many Western democracies, with a quarter of voters threatening to abstain and many others seduced by extremist firebrands on both Left and Right.

But, above all, voters are tired of his free-spending, his strutting vulgarity, his super-rich friends and his  scandals over money. I heard the same words bandied around again and again: that Sarkozy is cash-obsessed, coarse, rude, aggressive and, most of all, unpresidential. 

‘His behaviour is very unusual for a president,’ Alain Richard, a former defence minister, told me. ‘His first campaign was very smart in talking to the aspirations of the popular classes — but then, almost immediately, he seemed locked in an embrace with the rich and famous.’

In many ways, the story of Sarkozy’s presidency is the story of two ostentatious meals that serve to highlight this love affair with the wealthy. This is disastrous in the wake of the banking crisis — despite his recent repositioning as an enemy of the fat cats and ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

The first was at the height of his triumph on election night in 2007, when he celebrated with rich supporters in Fouquet’s, an expensive restaurant on the Champs-Elysees, before flying off to continue partying the next day on the massive yacht of a billionaire corporate raider. This set the tone for his tenure.

The second was an occasion laden with symbolism last Sunday, when Sarkozy joined 50 wealthy guests at a secretive fundraising lunch at The Crillon, Paris’s most expensive hotel. They dined on quail’s eggs, blue lobster and pot-roasted duck washed down with £400 bottles of wine in  the unfortunately named Marie Antoinette room. 

Afterwards, the president was caught slipping off his £50,000 white gold watch, a present from his wife, the supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, before giving a speech in the Place de la Concorde — where many political careers ended at the tip of the guillotine in the years after the revolution.

‘There’s the summary of his five years in power,’ said Mr Hollande with obvious delight. ‘It began in a grand restaurant and it finishes in a grand hotel.

You expect such jibes from rivals. But conservative and older voters have been shocked also at how Mr Sarkozy demeaned his office, whether looking at his BlackBerry during a meeting with the Pope, swearing at voters who dared disagree with him or having a series of run-ins with foreign leaders, including telling David Cameron to shut up at one heated EU summit.

Such cocky behaviour does not go down well in a country that likes its head of state to act in a monarchical manner, perhaps strangely given its history. Even in recent days, he managed to cause ripples by broadcasting part of a private video conference with Barack Obama.

‘He has made a major mistake in not understanding what the French expect from a president,’ said Christine Ockrent, a prominent television journalist, whose husband was a minister under Sarkozy. ‘The resentment is most obvious with conservative voters.’

Much of the anger is directed at his wife, who, having retired from the catwalk, fancies herself as a rock star. In recent weeks, she has tried to present herself as a down-to-earth housewife, saying she spends her time watching cooking shows on television. ‘We are modest people,’ she told a newspaper.

Few are convinced. ‘Carla Bruni has been a disaster for the president,’ said a senior member of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party, defying the French convention never to attack a First Lady in public. ‘The president has come across like a lapdog to this immensely rich, self-obsessed model and pop singer — this is not what the French people want from their head of state.’

Bruni has been at the heart of a charity scandal for much of this year after big sums she helped raise for mothers and children with Aids were siphoned off to her flashy friends. Almost half a million pounds went to a music entrepreneur and his colleagues to promote the charity amid claims that hardly any cash reached the intended targets.

She is also blamed for the couple’s constant parading of their private lives in public, and for their lavish lifestyle.

Mr Sarkozy started his presidency by giving himself a 140 per cent pay rise, taking his salary to well over £300,000 a year. Despite this, he used taxpayers’ cash to settle £2,800 worth of fines for late payments of his energy bills.

 Then there is the infamous presidential jet, which cost £45 million with another £240 million being spent kitting it out — including £60,000 bread ovens to ensure a supply of freshly baked baguettes.Given that the couple are fixtures in French celebrity magazines, and the haste with which Mr Sarkozy reduced taxes for the rich, it has all rather blunted his attempts to pose as an enemy of unchecked capitalism after the financial meltdown of four years ago.All this has played into the hands of Mr Hollande, who at 57 is the same age as Mr Sarkozy. There the similarity ends. While the president lives for the spotlight, his good-humoured rival takes pride in his provincialism, having spent many years as his party’s ultimate backroom boy.

Few thought he would stand on the brink of the presidency, especially after losing out on the Socialist nomination in the 2007 race to Segolene Royal, his then partner and mother of his four children. His chance came after rape allegations against runaway favourite Dominique Strauss-Kahn and he has seized his moment.

Although on the right of his party, Hollande has never hidden his dislike of the rich, and happily declared war on the world of finance. ‘My real adversary has no name, no face, no party,’ he thundered in his first key election rally in January. ‘It will never be elected, yet it governs — the adversary is the world of finance. 

‘Before our eyes, in 20 years, finance has taken control of the economy, society and even our lives.’

 Alongside this racy rhetoric came an old-fashioned Socialist programme with big increases in public spending funded by inflated taxes on businesses and the rich; the highest earners face paying 75 per cent income tax. He even plans to restore the right to retire at 60, revoking the most important — and hard-fought — of Sarkozy’s muted attempts to slim the bloated state.
The rise of Hollande is reminiscent of the last time the Left captured the Elysée. In 1981, Francois Mitterrand won power with radical promises to raise state spending, rein in finance and nationalise banks in response to the economic woes of the Seventies. 

Then, the programme was a disaster. Unemployment rose, inflation soared, the franc fell and capital fled abroad. After just three years, it was abandoned and replaced by austerity, salvaging the economy and ensuring Mitterrand retained the presidency for a second term.

His nationalisation adviser during the doomed experiment was a young man named Francois Hollande. If he goes on to be the Socialist successor to Mitterrand, it will be the first time in his life he has held ministerial office. Both France and Europe must hope he has learned the lessons of his past.

As for the Little Emperor who has strutted across the European  stage — his glamorous wife at his side — with such verbosity but so little impact, I fear the political  guillotine awaits.

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