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Sarkozy tries to assert authority

By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

President Sarkozy
The president admitted several times that he had made errors

Nicolas Sarkozy's television appearance was a major chance for him to reassert his authority and to assure the French people that the government's reforms were on the right track.

It was billed less as a presidential address to the nation, than as a disgraced pupil being dragged before the rest of the school to explain his misdemeanours - and challenged as to how he intended to perform better in the future.

By the end, he had not exactly turned the tables and become head teacher, but there were moments when he made the most of his naturally combative style.

At times it was like a flashback to his victorious election campaign as he battered out his favourite themes - France does not work hard enough; the country has been living beyond its means; responsibilities as well as rights; immigration has to be controlled.

The problem was, people were looking for more than a definition of what has been wrong - this time they were looking for proof that it was being put right.

Admission of errors

After the president's first year in office, they have been far from convinced.

He admitted - more than once - that he had made errors.

President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni
The jet set image of the president and his wife has grated with the French

He was not asked whether this included the saga of his divorce, and marriage to Carla Bruni, played out before the cameras at a time when most French people were more preoccupied with trying to make ends meet.

Indeed, the delicate question of the president's private life only came up at the end of the interview, after an hour and a half.

In recent months, the "bling-bling president" has shed his Rolex watches and jewellery since it became clear that the jet set image grated somewhat with ordinary French people.

Even so, one poll this past week suggested a majority still disapproved of Mr Sarkozy's personal style.

Manual workers and elderly people in particular have swung against him.

Rising prices

Above all the president was under pressure to deliver concrete answers on the number one problem cited by French people - the high cost of living.

Rising prices have been turning more and more people away from supermarkets and into discount stores.

Mr Sarkozy came to power vowing to become the "president of people's buying power", to go in search of economic growth "with his teeth", to enable people to "work more to earn more".

"Together everything is possible", ran his election slogan.

By the New Year the magician had surrendered his wand.

"What do you expect of me?" he demanded of a television interviewer. "That I empty the till when the till's already empty?"

This time he was careful not to appear powerless.

Extra hours

Mr Sarkozy gave a staunch defence of one of his flagship reforms - tax breaks on overtime to put more money in people's pockets.

Students demonstrate against proposed teaching cuts in France
Some economic reforms have been met with demonstrations

Five million workers, he said, were now able to benefit from putting in extra hours.

More competition would reduce prices, and other measures were aimed at reducing the poverty gap and getting more people into jobs, he said.

Naturally he highlighted the difficult international context, with the soaring cost of petrol, the subprime crisis, and the unfavourable exchange rate between the euro and the dollar.

Domestically, too, all problems could not be laid at Mr Sarkozy's door.

France, he said, had not balanced its books since 1974. He could not put everything right in a few months!

The television interviews given by Mr Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac were more placid, deferential affairs.

The head of state would rarely be interrupted as he poured forth his wisdom.

This time, the setting for the interview was like a metaphor for the Sarkozy presidency so far - a glitzy TV studio transplanted into the splendour of the Elysee.

Also, the questioning from five journalists provided just the right environment for a politician who needs a sparring partner to be at his best.

'Omnipresent president'

One of Mr Sarkozy's problems during his first year has been that he became so personally entwined with each reform.

The "omnipresent president" would bound around the country to sell his message as if he was still on the campaign trail.

One morning he flew to Brittany to defuse a fishermen's dispute.

Mission accomplished - apart from a brief verbal brawl with a heckler. He was off in the afternoon to Washington.

As if to add to a sense of incoherence, another word has entered the political vocabulary to describe the government's performance - "couacs", or "false notes".

In-fighting and u-turns have become commonplace.

"Stupidity", "a cacophony", and "a mess" were just three of the comments - and they came from the government's own MPs.

"Everything is back in order", said Mr Sarkozy as the interview drew to a close. He was referring to his private life.

The French people may still need some convincing that the same applies to his presidency.



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