Sarkozy in deep trouble as National Front surge
Sarkozy-Bruni marriage a mystery, but politically there’s no question he’s hit the rocks
Poor Nicolas Sarkozy. It's enough to make you want to pat the wee fellow on the head and tell him things can only get better. The French president is enduring one of his toughest periods since taking office in May 2007 and, alas, worse might be in store.
First, there is the second round of the regional elections on Sunday March 21 and then, six days later, it's "No Sarkozy Day", a campaign whose aim it to get one million French people out on the streets protesting about their president.
The immediate crisis facing Sarkozy is his party's poor showing in the first round of the regional elections, which took place on Sunday.
The Socialist Party won nearly 30 per cent of the vote, four per cent more than Sarkozy's UMP, who performed worse than predicted. With the Green Party taking 13 per cent of the vote, next Sunday's second round might turn into a catastrophe for Sarkozy if, as expected, the Socialists join forces with the Greens.
If voting patterns remain unchanged then the French Left could inflict a crushing defeat on the UMP, seizing control of 20 of the 22 domestic regions. That would be grim confirmation that the French public have grown disillusioned with the man who swept to power nearly three years ago promising to shake up France's moribund political system. Instead Sarkozy has presided over a year-long recession and tens of thousands of job losses.
What might worry Sarkozy most about the election results isn't so much the Socialists' gains, but rather the record abstention rate (52 per cent) and the fact that France's Front National [FN] did so well.
In the 2007 presidential election the FN were obliterated as their supporters were won over by Sarkozy's right-wing credentials. They gained only four per cent of the vote and many in France predicted the FN were finished as a political force. Now they're back. The charismatic Jean-Marie Le Pen's message that France is being insidiously Islamified has clearly struck home, with 12 per cent of voters backing his FN party in the first round.
"The President declared that he had killed the National Front," roared a triumphant Le Pen. "Well I am here to tell the President that the National Front has been resuscitated!"
Sarkozy must have sensed the day wasn't going to go according to plan when he arrived to cast his vote at a Paris polling station on Sunday morning. With his beautiful wife Carla Bruni in tow, the French president was hoping to fulfill the time-honoured political tradition of a united front in the face of scurrilous rumours. The rumours in question centred on the marital infidelities of the Sarkozy himself and Carla.
It was a week ago when stories surfaced, first on the internet and then in the British press, alleging that Bruni was having an affair with French musician Benjamin Biolay. Sarkozy, for his part was reputed to have found solace in the strong arms of ecology minister Chantal Jouanno (a former karate champion).
The British media quizzed Sarkozy on the allegations when he was in London last week and received short shrift, the president labelling the gossip as ‘idiotic'. But the body language displayed by Bruni at the polling station suggests the two-year marriage might be going through a rough patch.
Bruni, who once famously said "monogamy bores me terribly", appeared to resist her husband's attempts to hold her hand, prompting one British tabloid to lead with the headline "Clinging on for dear wife". According to an eye-witness it was a "toe-curling display of body language malfunction".
The French press has studiously ignored the allegations, not just because they are more respectful of public figures' private lives than their British colleagues, but also because they have yet to see any proof of infidelity. One story doing the rounds is that the furore originated with a French media student twittering the rumour to see how far it would spread. Having pulled off such a spectacular media stunt one might have expected the student to step forward and claim the glory, but no one has.
And then on Monday, just when Sarkozy must have hoped for a respite from adverse publicity, up popped perfidious Albion to once again poke fun. This time it was a story about his height (always a sensitive point with the 5ft 5in president) and the allegations carried by many of yesterday's British papers that Tory leader David Cameron - a strapping six-footer - had likened the 55-year-old French leader to a "dwarf".
It's during such times of strife that Sarkozy would do well to remember that famous French proverb for the small of stature: Dans les petites boîtes sont les bons onguents ['In the small boxes are the good ointments']. Because right now Monsieur Le President's bruised ego is in need of a soothing balm. ·
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