Can Obama Save Sarkozy’s Presidency?

Sarkozy Columbia Speech 2010

It will be the best of times and the worst of times for Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy when they meet at the White House for dinner tonight.  Obama is riding a wave of momentum from the passage of historic health care legislation and agreement on an important arms control treaty with Russia. Sarkozy, on the other hand, faces perilously unfavorable poll numbers, a growing rebellion against his leadership in his governing UMP party, and the emergence of credible opposition figures for the 2012 presidential campaign.

This tête à tête comes at an opportune moment for the French oresident, who desperately craves some statesman-like bonhomie with his American counterpart. But both sides must beware of potential disappointment. Eager to keep his momentum and conserve his precious time, Obama will seek substance and deliverables from his French counterpart. A highly distracted Sarkozy may be more focused on posturing for the media back home than delivering substantive measures that could be of assistance to the United States. The White House should beware of Sarkozy’s badly weakened domestic political positioning and focus instead on building stronger France-U.S. relations at an institutional level, rather than placing their bets on the increasingly discredited French President.

France Rejects ‘le Sarkozysme’

In last week’s regional elections, France rejected  Sarkozy, his policies, and his personal style. The Socialist party and their allies on the Left badly defeated Sarkozy’s UMP party, leaving only one region in metropolitan France in the hands of the Right. Prior to the elections, Sarkozy had declared that "regional elections have regional consequences," indicating that the outcome of the elections would not impact his choice of ministers or larger political priorities.

The latest opinion surveys reveal clearly that the people of France went to the polls (or more accurately, stayed home from the polls) with the goal of sanctioning the Ppresident and his policies personally. The electorate did not just vote based on local concerns. Today, only 30% of French people ‘are satisfied’ with  Sarkozy, while 65% declare themselves ‘malcontent’ with his leadership. These numbers approach historic lows in the history of the Fifth Republic. More telling is that Sarkozy’s calm and sober prime minister, François Fillon, has an approval rating of 49%, the largest difference between a president and premier since France’s current political system was created in 1958. These polls, combined with the massive abstention rate of voters from the right in regional elections, indicate that France has not necessarily lurched to the left, but that the country is fed up with sarkozysme, the blend of Sarkozy’s furious push for multiple reforms, his theatrical tactics, and his hyperactive, highly personalized presidency.

The French Right has taken notice of the country’s angst and some have begun to doubt their chief. Sarkozy has dominated the French right since his election as head of the majority UMP party in 2005. His presidential victory in 2007 confirmed his grip over the party and its direction, as did his ability to keep the opposition off balance by poaching their best ideas and their best talent for ministerial positions. Slowly but surely, however, Sarkozy began to alienate the various bases of support that helped him win election. Traditional Gaullists and more partisan devotees of the French Right complained at the plum ministries offered to the members of the Center and the Left as part of Sarkozy’s policy of ‘ouverture.’ The business community disliked his proposed carbon tax, farmers felt the Parisian-born president did not sufficiently understand or care about their issues, and socially conservative voters grumbled about his ‘unpresidential,’ flashy style and his choice of the morally lax Frédéric Mitterrand as culture minister. Despite all the quiet grumbling, the house of cards remained standing when Sarkozy led the team to victory, including after the Right’s triumph in last June’s European elections.

But defeat brings the threat of mutiny, and the mounting dissatisfaction has come to a boil. The French weeklies are full of rumors of a growing rivalry between Sarkozy and Fillon, and many within the UMP complain that Sarkozy failed to show a proper understanding of the electorate’s dissatisfaction by refusing a significant shifting of cabinet ministers in the aftermath of last week’s electoral rout.

Sarkozy Loses the Political Narrative

In retrospect, Sarkozy’s fast fall from grace is not surprising and can be explained by an evolution of the political context in France and the president’s over reliance on high-profile tactics to mask the fact that his political strategy no longer fit the times. Sarkozy based his widely admired presidential campaign on the notion of a ‘rupture’ from the policies of Jacques Chirac and his government, promising economic reforms and liberalization. He took office a year before the global economic crisis, when the economic climate was still somewhat conducive to reform.

As the world economy began to turn and the West found itself without a leader, Sarkozy bolstered his profile by morphing into the man of the hour during a time of crisis. His hyperactive personal style stole the show in the final negotiations on the Lisbon treaty, cease-fire negotiations in the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, the global financial crisis, and the institutionalization of the G20.

But the moment of crisis has passed and  Obama has more than filled the Western leadership vacuum created by a lame-duck George W. Bush. As Sarkozy has lost his star power on the world stage and his campaign promises of major economic reform have lost support in the current economic context, he finds himself without a coherent strategy and vision for France. He has lost his political narrative and has sought to fill that void through a series of tactical maneuvers and scattered reforms. Sarkozy’s launching of a controversial debate on the burqa and the question of national identity was supposed to draw conservative voters to the UMP, but instead revived the fortunes of Jean Marie Le Pen and the far-right Front National party, which topped 20% in the regional elections in two regions of France.

The presidential elections of 2012 are fast approaching, and the political landscape is increasingly unfavorable to Sarkozy. Following the Socialist victory in the regional elections, Martine Aubry has emerged as the leading figure of the Left, overshadowing Ségolѐne Royal. Surveys now show Aubry would defeat Sarkozy in a head-to-head electoral contest, even if many challenges remain for Aubry in her quest to win the Presidential nomination. IMF Managing Director and former Socialist heavyweight Dominique Strauss-Kahn remains the most credible candidate to defeat Sarkozy from the Left, but it remains unclear whether or not he will throw his hat into the ring. Former Prime Minister to Jacques Chirac and neo-Gaullist Dominique de Villepin has announced he will form a new political party to contest Sarkozy from the right. His lack of a political base will prevent him from winning the presidency, but he will shape the political debate and will offer a credible alternative to sarkozysme from the Right.

Indeed, the re-emergence of the Front National, the rising popularity of Dominique de Villepin as the anti-Sarkozy voice of Gaullism, and the UMP’s troubles could set the stage for a repeat of the 2002 elections, where splits to the vote on the left permitted fringe candidate Jean Marie Le Pen to attract the second-highest vote tally and face Chirac in the second round runoff election. This time, the same thing may happen on the right, opening the door for another third party to fill the void. In the face of this emerging landscape, some voices are calling for Sarkozy to not present himself as a candidate in 2012 so the moderate Right can rally around someone more acceptable to the broader electorate, such as Fillon. Deputies from the National Assembly fear Sarkozy’s bad image could hurt their own electoral campaigns in 2012 as well, leading to UMP losses in the legislative branch.

With these challenges facing Sarkozy in the months to come, Obama and his team are doing the right thing by giving the mercurial French president and his glamorous spouse a private dinner and personal attention to give him a much-needed boost. But the Obama team should also hedge their bets and avoid overpersonalizing the president’s relationship with Sarkozy. With the cards increasingly stacked against him, the White House should invest more into bolstering the U.S.-France relationship at the institutional level, and focus less on forging a personal relationship with a man increasingly at odds with his fickle countrymen.

Jeff Lightfoot is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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