Sarkozy’s Tough Reelection Prospects

French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces discontent both from voters and within his party.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, June 2010
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, June 2010 (Elysée)

Entering his fourth year in office, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has to cope with a public increasingly weary with his policies and political challenges from within his own party.

Sarkozy was elected in 2007, with some 53 percent of the vote, in part because he campaigned to strengthen internal security. The capital of Paris had witnessed a string of violent incidents in its banlieues just two years prior, much of which had been instigated by Muslim immigrant youth. Pressured by the increasing popularity of France’s Front national, the nationalist and xenophobic party established by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, under Sarkozy’s leadership, the conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) adopted a more assertive stance on immigration issues. In recent weeks, that position has backfired.

Earlier this month, the French government began deporting hundreds of Roma and Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria, offering them 300 euros as an incentive to leave France voluntarily.

The policy is not without precedent. Some 400,000 Roma are estimated to live in France as part of established communities. An additional 12,000 from Eastern Europe roam the country illegally. Last year, more than 10,000 Roma were sent back.

The expulsion strategy followed two equally controversial proposals. One is to strip criminals of foreign birth of their nationality; the other, to imprison the parents of juvenile delinquents.

Opponents of the expulsions believe that the government is violating the freedom of movement which the Roma, as citizens of the European Union, enjoy. The opposition wonders aloud whether Sarkozy, whose approval ratings have plummeted in recent months, isn’t using the incident for his political gain. It that were so, it certainly hasn’t helped. The president’s popularity has sunk to an all time low this summer.

Public support for Sarkozy has dropped to 34 percent; the lowest score since he took office three years ago. A majority of Frenchmen, 55 percent, now prefer a socialist occupied the Élysée Palace.

France is largely a socialist country and the left has been on the rise since March of this year when, in regional elections, it picked up slightly more than half of the votes nationwide and managed to secure majorities in nearly all of France’s département. Unsurprisingly, the losses have been cause for discord in Sarkozy’s own UMP.

Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a prominent conservative party member until he launched his own platform in June, alleged on French radio last week that most cabinet ministers are “unhappy and uncomfortable” with the president’s national-security strategy. Another former prime minister and sitting senator, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, expressed similar concern with Sarkozy’s “drift to the right” and what he described as “ridiculous” security policies.

The president has been trying to boost his appeal with populist law and order measures but the upcoming presidential election of 2012 is likely to be dominated by economic issues.

In response to the crisis, Sarkozy, though foreman of France’s political right, has abandoned laissez-faire and complained that “nothing has gone to labor” in the preceding decade when bankers supposedly enriched themselves while bringing the world economy onto the brink of collapse. The president has since led the effort for a European bailout of Greece and favors increased European governance in the financial sector.

Sarkozy had more than one reason to try to keep the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of the Greek rescue effort. Current director of the Fund is French socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is rumored to contemplate a presidential run come election. He previously attempted to secure the socialists’ nomination for president in 2006 but won barely 20 percent of the party votes.

Other potential contenders include Martine Aubry, leader of the Parti socialiste since November 2008 and daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors as well as François Bayrou, president of the Democratic Movement and self proclaimed Third Way centrist.

Sarkozy’s newfound embrace of protectionism and appeals to “labor” are not surprising, given widespread discontent with France’s persistent malaise. The announced extension of the pension age, for instance, will likely spur mass protests next month. The unions are preparing a major day of strikes on September 7. No matter the president’s denouncements of the “freewheeling” financial industry or the “excesses of capitalism,” voters in 2012 may well prefer a genuine socialist over Sarkozy’s poor imitation of one.

In accordance with the G20’s pledge to cut fiscal deficits in half by 2013, Sarkozy’s government is determined to bring France’s deficit down from 8 to 3 percent within three years, implying about a hundred billion euros in savings. The government is planning to eliminate some ten billion euros in tax breaks but has vowed to avoid unpopular increases in income, corporate and value-added tax rates. Where the remaining tens of billions in spending cuts will come from remains uncertain.