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Geopolitics

How A Populist Lost His Popularity - Failure Of The Sarkozy Experiment

Essay: With his hyperactivity and "cop-in-chief" attitude, Nicolas Sarkozy was unlike any French president before him. His failure to win a second term is due to his own mistakes and an economic crisis he couldn't contain. Now F

Sarkozy during the 2007 campaign. He couldn't repeat that victory Sunday after five tumultuous years (G. Paumier)
Sarkozy during the 2007 campaign. He couldn't repeat that victory Sunday after five tumultuous years (G. Paumier)

PARIS - On Sunday, May 6, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man with a bruising temperament and boundless energy, suffered the worst setback of his 30-year career – and may be set to leave politics altogether.

The hyperactive president, who ultimately was unpopular like no head of state before him, looked back on his record, which he considered to be satisfactory in the face of repeated crises that France has faced during his five years in office.

He had warned the French that if defeated, he would leave politics. "I'll do something else. What exactly, I do not know," he said. Whether this was a gamble or an early emotional response was unclear.

On Sunday evening, he became the first standing French president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing (in 1981) to fail to be elected a second term. With 52% of the vote, Socialist party candidate François Hollande defeated Sarkozy to become France's next President of the Republic.

Sarkozy's defeat signals the failure of his strategy to move to the right, which began even before the first round of voting two weeks ago, and the historic tally (17.9%) achieved by Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front party.

"We have too many foreigners in our country," he said before the election.

This rhetoric, which some have called "populist," increased further after the April 22 first round. Outraged centrist leader François Bayrou, who endorsed Hollande, called it a "sprint to chase National Front themes."

After sparking a controversial national debate about Islam and national identity during his tenure as president, Sarkozy focused his re-election campaign on France's Christian heritage, the fight against immigration, and security.

Outsized ambitions

Sarkozy moved into the Elysée Palace in May 2007 intent on profoundly changing the nation. He wanted to revive French politics, to reform everything in a country mired in the weight of its old ways. He wanted the French to "work more to earn more," to halve unemployment. He did not succeed.

Ultimately, his unbridled activism and his style of government troubled the French people. His legacy includes reforms of the pension system, increased autonomy for universities, and minimum service during public transportation strikes.

Sarkozy, 57, does not come from the French bourgeoisie, defying the classic profile of a French politician. He was not educated at the famous Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), instead obtaining a law degree and unquenchable political ambition. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he was raised by his mother and his grandfather, a Greek from Thessaloniki. "I am of mixed blood (...), I come from elsewhere," he once declared.

Methodically, he crossed all the obstacles on his way to the presidency: at 19, he became a Gaullist, and at 28 he was elected mayor of the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He was an member of Parliament at 34, and a Minister for the first time at 38. In 2007, he moved on triumphantly to the presidency after defeating Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.

Sarkozy is a politician who "doubts nothing, especially not himself," said Jacques Chirac, who was his first mentor. His close ties with the former president were ruptured forever after Sarkozy supported another right-wing candidate, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 election.

His defeat today signals the end of an era. "Since 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy has been the star of French politics," said Frederic Dabi of the polling organization IFOP. But he has been particularly essential to the right. After serving as Interior Minister in the early 2000s, he moved on to a brief stint as Minister of the Economy before launching his presidential bid.

He was the "First Cop of France," guided by openly Atlanticist diplomacy and rather free-market economic ideas. But his mandate will remain linked to the crisis, which forced him to recompose and to adapt.

He is confident that he made the right decisions to protect the French – first to save the banks in 2008, and then following Greek bankruptcy in 2011, when he made concessions to his ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who openly supported him for re-election. European emergency summits have put them together as a "couple," despite their very different characteristics.

Nicolas Sarkozy also believes that he made the right choice by sending the French Army to the Ivory Coast and to Libya in support of the Arab Spring, which he first underestimated.

Controversy, then and now

In short, he was a "crisis president" never as comfortable as when he was in action, say his supporters. But with his uninhibited speech on immigration, Nicolas Sarkozy's mandate ended just as it began: in controversy.

Five years ago, it was his relationship to the rich and powerful that caused a stir when he celebrated his victory at Fouquet's, an upscale restaurant on the Champs-Elysées. His family was "exploding," he explained. His second wife, Cecilia, was leaving him.

Mr. Sarkozy was the first French president to be divorced while in office. He was also the first to marry – to former model Carla Bruni in 2008 – and to have a daughter – Giulia, his fourth child after three boys.

Despite the mea culpa, he still struggled shake the image of "President of the Rich," which was accentuated by his first fiscal decisions in office.

Thanks in part to his fighter mentality, he still hoped to win in the final days, even as the polls were all predicting defeat. Small, wiry, and marked by tics and mannerisms, the man who does not drink and who works out every day sent out a final message to his supporters. "Help me," he told them.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Guilliame Paumier

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