Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Saturday, 20 March 2010

France falls out of love with President Sarkozy

With plummeting poll ratings and dismal local election results, French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have been dumped by many of the voters who fell in love with him in 2007. Emma Jane Kirby in Paris asks what went wrong.

President Sarkozy with his wife Carla Bruni
Reports of marital problems were based on unconfirmed rumours

Last week, my 80-year-old Aunty Barbara, who rarely misses a trick, called me from Ilkley in West Yorkshire, England, excited by reports she had read in the British press that President Sarkozy's marriage was on its last legs.

"Is it true that his pop star wife Carla Bruni has run off with another musician and that he's seeing one of his own ministers?" she asked me. "People are talking about it in our bookshop."

However in Parisian bookshops, known as librairies, no-one is talking about such rumours.

Not just because strict privacy laws prevent the French press from writing too much about politician's private lives, nor because the scandal emanated from a hoax by an internet blogger.

They're not talking about their president's alleged marital disputes because they're concerned about a much bigger affair - his infidelity to them.

'Sweet nothings'

When he was elected two-and-a-half years ago, President Sarkozy made certain vows to his electorate.

He promised ordinary French people they would become richer and that their country would become more competitive.

But with unemployment now standing at more than 10%, its highest level in a decade, and with France's bank books showing screaming red deficits, many here feel those bold promises were little more than whispered sweet nothings.

That sense of betrayal can be seen clearly in the popularity polls.

The French leader has sunk to his lowest rating yet, 36%.

And it's not as if the French have even fallen for someone else

And the stinging defeat his governing right wing UMP party suffered in the first round of the regional elections on Sunday - largely because so few people bothered to vote - would seem to suggest that President Sarkozy has now been well and truly dumped by a significant number of his supporters.

And it's not as if the French have even fallen for someone else.

While it's true that the opposition Socialists have done spectacularly well in the regional elections, they still cannot agree on an attractive candidate for the next race to the Elysee in 2012.

The white-suited charm of Segolene Royal, the defeated candidate in the last presidential election, has greyed a little over the years.

Dominique Strauss Kahn, who might be in the running, currently leads the IMF - which might not sit too comfortably with his Leftist party constituency.

Some newspapers here have recently been talking up the Merkellian characteristics of the current Socialist leader, Martine Aubry.

Nicolas Sarkozy
The French people... might need a little more convincing that he's not just stringing them along for the ride

But the only real similarities between her and the German chancellor which editors seem able to stand up, are that both women are a little frumpy and have pudding-basin haircuts.

But as a group, there's no doubt the Socialists are wooing both voters and political partners.

Not only have they formed an alliance with other Leftist parties, they've also convinced Europe Ecologie - the Greens - to join their block for this Sunday's vote.

It's a double date that can't fail to win.

Nicolas Sarkozy's party on the other hand is standing alone. The UMP has been spurned by former political allies and is entering these elections distinctly celibataire (single).

So what has put people off President Sarkozy and his party?

Heavy flirting

Flirting too heavily with the far right has certainly alienated many voters.

Last year's controversial debate on national identity sparked accusations of racism, while hard-line immigration and law and order policies, designed to steal voters away from the National Front, have made traditional supporters look elsewhere.

A plan (now abandoned) to install his son Jean Sarkozy as head of the agency in charge of Paris's business district, was also met with outrage.

Jean Sarkozy
Jean Sarkozy's planned job triggered accusations of nepotism

Critics say the president spent far too much time sniping and squabbling in his own cabinet when he should have been focusing on France.

And yet when he did get down to work, that wasn't good enough either - his planned reforms of regional governments, pensions and the judicial system have all proved to be deeply divisive.

Yes, he was put in the Elysee to change France, admit those who elected him, but in the grip of an economic crisis, couldn't the president have broken the bad news a bit more gently?

In an attempt to make it up to the French people perhaps, President Sarkozy has now suggested he'll slow down the pace of his reforms.

Despite his bravado in saying that the results of the regional elections mean nothing nationally, he'll be hurt by his party's low score and by a recent poll which suggests his old supporters would now prefer to see his prime minister, Francois Fillon, sitting in the Elysee Palace.

So can the French ever be persuaded to take Nicolas Sarkozy back into their affections?

In an interview last week, Carla Bruni insisted she could always trust her husband.

The French people, and others watching, like those in Aunty Barbara's Ilkley bookshop, might need a little more convincing that he's not just stringing them along for the ride.

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