Is The Magic Gone? Sarkozy Launches Reelection Bid In Search Of 2007 Mojo

Analysis: Trailing in the polls, French President Sarkozy is struggling to connect with voters the way he did on his way to victory five years ago. Can he tap into his core attributes, or will they wind up driving him to defeat?

Sarkozy on the move in 2007 (Guillaume Paumier)
Sarkozy on the move in 2007 (Guillaume Paumier)
Raphaëlle Bacqué and François Fressoz

PARIS - "The first time is about seducing; you get elected the second time if you can just be seen as the least incompetent." Throughout 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy listened to the counsel of his closest advisors about how to lead a presidential campaign when you're the incumbent.

He heard them say that a second campaign is never going to be "magical," that one must lean on presidential attributes as long as possible without getting trapped in the presidential bubble.

Sarkozy's struggle in the polls, his lack of popularity and his own intuition made him choose a totally different approach: on Wednesday night, he officially announced he was running for reelection, getting into campaign mode to make people forget the incumbent president and try to revive the image of the successful candidate he was five years ago. But does he still have what it takes?

Physical strength

Good health has always been one of Sarkozy's assets, and he pays attention to his physical form with a strict regimen of a high-protein diet and exercise at least three times a week.

But his hallow cheeks, his frequent bursts of anger and the visible tension in the past weeks prove that he's kicking off his presidential campaign tired. He's talked about his "difficult nights because the baby doesn't sleep much," in reference to his infant daughter Giulia, perhaps trying to hide the exhausted president behind the new father.

Keeping the faith

Winning or losing, Sarkozy never stops believing in himself. On February 16, 2007, just a few months before his victory in the presidential election he told his friends: "I'm starting to feel good about this campaign."

For the past 5 years, lawmakers from his ruling UMP party have heard him spin reality. Since the 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy's center-right party has lost all other elections. "I look at the situation calmly. Between the first round of the regional elections – in March 2010 – and the first round of the local elections – in March 2011 – the right gained 4.5 points," he said following the latter election.

On April 14, 2011, he told lawmakers "I'm starting to feel good about the situation…" But this time, their faith in him isn't as strong.

Contempt for his opponents

Those close to Sarkozy are adamant that he has an objective assessment of the power struggle, the situation in the country and himself. But his time as a lawyer pushes him to claim he's the best while constantly bringing down his opponent. It's behavior that at times makes him seem oblivious to reality.

For a long time, the French President didn't believe in the Socialist candidate's chances. "The only things that destabilizes Nicolas Sarkozy is intellectual prestige," says former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. "And for him, Francois Hollande doesn't have that."

One elected official says of Sarkozy that he's "never seen him doubt himself." Another adds: "If he were an oncologist, his patients would definitely believe they'd be cured."

Mastering values

Values are what ultimately gave him the victory in 2007. He put forth the right a set of values, which had been dormant for years: work, responsibility, authority.

Today, he would like that scenario to repeat itself. "Politics die without ideas!" he says. "I'm not lacking ideas, I have too many!"

In his interview this past weekend with Le Figaro, the headline was: "My Values for France," but his ideas don't feel very new. "Work, responsibility, authority." That's the 2007 speech all over again, except now he must kick off his campaign leaning more to the right than he did five years ago.

The Showman

Nicolas Sarkozy during campaign rallies in 2007 was like a rock star. But he's since become the President of the Republic, and his bi-weekly meetings with the French people are often ill-prepared. Sarkozy wants to be back home each night, and so he rarely spends more than a few hours in each region, while his predecessors could stay two or three days. Local newspapers often underline the speedy nature of his trips.

The man with no past

Sarkozy is a man who combines two particularities: he is hypermnesic, which means he's someone who, as Brice Hortefeux, a former Interior Minister and close friend of Sarkozy, once said "doesn't forget anything and doesn't neglect anything." But he is also amnesiac, and likes to write history on a clean slate. Yasmina Reza, a French writer who followed him during his 2007 campaign, once heard him say: "I'm a stranger to my past. The only thing I'm interested in is this afternoon, tomorrow."

Often his advisors regret only being able to talk to him about the coming week. "He's hyperactive, but in the long-term he has trouble settling down," says one of them. "The real question in this election is whether the French people will be able to forget that he was the President for the past five years."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Guillaume Paumier

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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