Sat, Feb 18, 2012 - Page 9 News List

How Nicolas Sarkozy surged from superstar to toxic brand

France’s election hangs on the record-breaking unpopularity of a politician who once held a sweeping mandate to transform the country with free-market liberalism

By Angelique Chrisafis  /  The Guardian, GANDRANGE, FRANCE

Near the rusting, abandoned steelworks perched on a hill overlooking the forlorn northeastern town of Gandrange, trade unionists put up a gravestone inscribed: “Here lie the broken promises of Nicolas Sarkozy.” The French president, fresh from his whirlwind marriage to Carla Bruni in 2008, had vowed that the state would save the factory and he would come back to help. Neither happened.

Instead, Gandrange has come to symbolize what one local deemed “all that is wrong with Sarkozy.” His political opponents make symbolic campaign stops here, the unemployed struggle to pay their rent and the mood is grim.

“People can’t even bear to hear his name,” said Yves Mougenot, a lorry driver.

Last month, even the gravestone was stolen.

The French presidential election this spring hangs more than ever on the record-breaking unpopularity of one man. Sarkozy was elected in 2007 with a sweeping mandate to transform France with a revolution in the style of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, vowing to drag the country out of its old statist habits with an injection of free-market liberalism that would allow the French to “work more to earn more.”

He was the most overwhelmingly popular president since Charles de Gaulle. Five years later, 70 percent of the public think his record is negative. Unemployment is at a 12-year high, with almost 1 million more people unemployed than when Sarkozy took office. If former French presidents Francois Mitterrand abolished the death penalty and Jacques Chirac kept the country out of the war in Iraq, pundits are struggling to define what Sarkozy’s legacy might be.

He promised to boost the average citizen’s spending power, but up to 15 million people now struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month. Far from being given a state of grace because of the financial crisis, Sarkozy is personally blamed by France’s audit body for a fifth of the rise in the country’s public deficit. Schools are underperforming, class social inequality is pervasive and racial divisions run deep. France is the world’s most pessimistic nation about its economic prospects.

Sarkozy promised to lower taxes and ended up raising them. He defended the free market over the French social model, then turned resolutely statist, saying the French model saved the country from the crisis in capitalism. However, he is still accused of weakening the welfare safety net. A majority of people feel he never intended to keep his election promises to reform France.

“Anti-Sarkozyism has become a real political phenomenon and it has taken on a cultural dimension, particularly among the young,” Jerome Sainte-Marie of pollsters CSA said.

“It’s rare to see a president so profoundly unpopular and for such a long time: four years out of five. The reason is that Sarkozy set himself up as a man to be judged on his results and the French see no results on jobs, which is their over-riding concern, or on spending power, or even on crime and security: Sarkozy’s specialist topic and part of his political DNA. Economically, people feel the efforts weren’t spread fairly: there were injustices such as his easing taxes for the rich,” Sainte-Marie said.

Even in his own right-wing camp, Sarkozy’s re-election battle in April and May is seen as extremely difficult. The socialist favorite Francois Hollande has lengthened his lead and Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Front National, is snapping at Sarkozy’s heels.

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