Roger Cohen had a column in Sunday’s New York Times on Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom Cohen has “always had a soft spot,” so he informs the reader. This is the most laudatory commentary I’ve read on Sarko in quite a while. I thought about doing a post on it, as there is much in it to respond to, but decided to hold off. I have a lot to say about Sarkozy but there will be numerous other occasions to do so as we enter the campaign season here—the presidential election is exactly a year away—, so I’ll save it for later.
But a friend is insisting that I write about Cohen’s column. As he was the one who came up with the name of my blog, I thus owe him at least partial satisfaction, so will address two lines in the column. The first: Cohen asserts that “[Sarkozy] was the outsider from the wrong schools who believed in energy and talent and had the audacity to smash the taboo that said a French politician can’t love America and prosper.” There are three problems with this sentence. (a) Sarkozy, who has lived his entire life in Paris’ 17th & 8th arrondissements plus Neuilly-sur-Seine—les beaux quartiers, the toniest parts of the city and its environs—, hails from a bourgeois family (on his mother’s side; his father’s was aristocratic), and went to private schools, cannot, strictly speaking, be considered an outsider. Moreover, being a precocious 21-year old protégé of Jacques Chirac—who, at the time, was the top gun of a major political party and plotting his first run for the presidency—is not a mark of outsiderness. Nor is having been mayor of Neuilly for 24 years—beginning at age 27—, which is sort of like being Congressman from the New York City Silk Stocking District, or mayor of Beverly Hills. And then there’s Sarko’s older brother Guillaume, a longtime leading personality in the patronat (employers’ confederation). No outsider he. (b) By “the wrong schools” Cohen presumably means not ENA. So Sarko is not an énarque. He didn’t go to a grande école. Lots of top rank politicians didn’t. Graduates of the grandes écoles are certainly overrepresented in the upper reaches of the French political class but this has never been a prerequisite for entry into the said class. Sarkozy’s educational parcours is, in fact, perfectly respectable for a leading politician: a law degree from the University of Paris-X Nanterre—all sorts of prominent people went to Nanterre, including Sarko’s possible successor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—and a stint at Sciences Po Paris, which is synonymous with elite when it comes to French higher education (okay, so Sarko didn’t get a degree from Sciences Po, as he flunked the English exam, mais peu importe). (c) On the taboo that “a French politician can’t love America and prosper,” oh come on! Jacques Chirac loved to tell stories about his year in America in the early ’50s, when he worked at Howard Johnson’s, had a girlfriend from South Carolina, acquired his lifelong love for cheeseburgers… Many, if not most, French politicians with presidential aspirations over the years have been fluent English speakers and know the United States well, and they haven’t hidden it (cf. John Kerry in 2004, fleeing French journalists and avoiding all questions about his French links or knowledge of the language). Sarkozy’s Americaphilia is well-known (though only in recent years) but he’s never dwelled on it; and, it should be noted, he doesn’t speak English (see above) and has hardly spent any time in the US. He is the most francocentric president we’ve had in the Fifth Republic (more so than even De Gaulle, who spoke fluent German and English, and knew the world outside France far better than Sarkozy does).
The second line in Cohen’s column I want to address is his conclusion: “This restless French leader is at his best with his back to the wall. He’s shown that. The same quality means it would be foolish to count him out next year.” Don’t count Sarko out in ’12, Cohen says. Perhaps. Just about everyone in France these days is indeed counting Sarko out for next year, in view of his disastrous poll numbers. The polling agencies that track presidential popularity monthly—IFOP, IPSOS, TNS-Sofres, BVA—presently have Sarkozy’s approval/favorable ratings in the 23-32% range (the questions asked vary: job performance, satisfaction with him as president, confidence in his ability to solve the country’s problems). French polling agencies, unlike most of those in the US, further break down the numbers by intensity of feeling (tout à fait/plutôt: strong/soft). The strong support for Sarkozy is 3 to 4% in all the polls, whereas the strong disapproval—i.e. those who can’t stand him—ranges from 32 to 48%. This is not only a huge imbalance but is unprecedented for a president. Breaking down by partisan affiliation, within his party’s base—the UMP—Sarkozy is at 67 to 78% approval, which is okay but not great. But expanded to the entire electorate of the right—including centrists (who in France vote for the right in national elections) and the Front National—, whose votes Sarko will need, overall approval ranges from a mere 54 to 61%. Over 80% of MoDem and FN sympathizers disapprove of Sarkozy’s performance. In short, Sarkozy has big problems with his own voters.
One cannot win an election with these poll ratings. By way of contrast, the last president seeking re-election whose poll numbers were below 50% a year before the vote was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1980 (45%), and we know what happened to him. Extending the comparison to the US, it has not been uncommon for presidents to find their poll numbers in the 40s eighteen months before the election (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, now Obama), but so long as they hold their base, they’re safe, or so it has turned out. The only US president who lost his base was Carter (in the low 50s among Democrats in 1979; Obama is presently at 80%). Sarkozy is thus deep in the danger zone and given the state of the French economy—which not a single economist predicts will witness a sudden spurt of growth in the coming months and with a concomitant fall in unemployment—, there is little prospect of his poll numbers rising significantly before the end of the year. If Sarko is still in the 20s or 30s come December, he’s toast in ’12.
Sarko could, of course, be the happy beneficiary of an electoral accident. Accidents have indeed happened in recent French political history. In France, such accidents are simply referred to as “le 21 avril”. Could such an accident happen again? The possibility is being raised by all sorts of people, particularly after last month’s cantonal elections. I say no, absolutely and categorically. I’ll come back to this at a later date.