Speedo slows down

Ten months after he came barnstorming to power, Nicolas Sarkozy is in some trouble. The tactician who sapped the strength of the French left by offering right-wing socialists a seat in his government or on the International Monetary Fund is now finding his own weaponry used against him.

The French President’s first major electoral test, the opening round of municipal elections recently, saw a shift to the left. Rouen fell to the socialists, and Paris and Lyon will stay in their hands. Marseille, Toulouse and Strasbourg are all in the balance.

A victory in any, or all, of these cities in the second round next week would deal a blow to Sarkozy’s attempts to establish the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party as the dominant force in French politics. In many towns and cities the centrist vote of François Bayrou’s Democratic Movement, the so-called Modems, holds the balance of power. But this time, centrists are shunning the advances of the UMP and making tactical voting deals with the left.

”Openness”, the clarion call of Sarkozy’s first government, now excludes the centre-right. More than one factor is at play here. First, the economy has recovered sufficiently to bring unemployment down slightly, but not by enough to cope with soaring prices.

The state’s coffers are empty. Second, Sarkozy’s reforms have stalled. He has nibbled at the edges of the 35-hour week, but it is still there in all its glory. The hard bit — pension, health and civil service reform — is still to come. The hyperactive politician called ”Speedo” is losing his reputation as a man who gets things done.

Finally, there is the unending soap opera of his personal life. Not a week goes by without a fresh episode in the life of President Bling Bling (the latest addition to his collection of big watches and flashy gold chains is a fountain pen he took a fancy to at a signing ceremony in Romania).

The antics of the perma-tanned suitor to Carla Bruni, wife number three, go down like a lead balloon with households struggling with their bills. It is not just that the bling in the president’s life is tacky. It is like Bill and Monica. It robs the office of dignity.

Victory at the polls does not mean the end of bitter divisions within the socialists. No sooner had the former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal called for ”alliances everywhere” with the centrists than her former partner, François Hollande, said the opposite.

The party still has to choose a new leader and a new direction to take. For Sarkozy, the lesson is clear: be more like the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, the quiet pragmatist who is riding high in the polls. Sarkozy has promised that he will listen to the French people. The question is whether he has the humility to do so. — Â

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