The strange unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy
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Yet Mr Sarkozy faces an imminent political humiliation, as disillusioned voters snub him in regional elections. The two-round poll, being held on March 14th and 21st, will elect governments in France's 22 mainland regions (plus four overseas). All the opinion polls agree that the results will be terrible for Mr Sarkozy's ruling UMP party. As it is, the party runs only Alsace and Corsica. With turnout likely to be low, and uncertainty over the vote for the far-right National Front, there could still be a surprise. But even the UMP has resigned itself to at best one region gained — and, at worst, Corsica and even Alsace lost.
In part this is just mid-term blues. At the previous regional poll in 2004, when Jacques Chirac was president, the Socialists also swept the board. Regional elections offer a chance to register a protest vote or an abstention, since for most voters the stakes are low. Despite winning more autonomy, French regions, which run services like transport, schools and museums, do not have the powers of German states. Their combined budget of some €28 billion in 2009 is little over a third of the combined budget of France's departments — the level of government below regions.
Few voters feel attached to their regions, which were created only in 1986; fewer still know who runs them. Just 29 per cent of respondents could name their regional president, according to LH2, a polling group. The best-known, identified by 85 per cent, was Ségolène Royal, the defeated Socialist ex-presidential candidate who is president of Poitou-Charentes. François Bonneau, president of Centre, was correctly named by a paltry 7 per cent of his own electorate.
Another factor is the strange disconnect between the Socialist Party at local level, where it is credible, and on the national stage, where it is not. Martine Aubry, the party's boss, has criss-crossed France on the campaign trail, but it is local candidates who seem to count more. In Languedoc-Roussillon, Georges Frêche, the incumbent president, looks like being re-elected, despite being kicked out of the party for an anti-Semitic slur. On this basis the regional elections may have little bearing on the prospects for the 2012 presidential election.
Why are the French so fed up and so ready to protest at the ballot box? One reason is that it is little comfort, in the midst of an economic slump, to be told that life is even harder next door. The French may have been spared the worst of the speculative bubble, but they have been badly battered by unemployment, the economy's longstanding weak spot. The jobless rate is now above 10 per cent, its highest for over ten years, compared with 7.5 per cent in Germany and 8 per cent in Britain. Unemployment among men under 26 is as high as 25 per cent. Night after night, French television news seems to announce yet more job losses and factory closures. Last year, protesting workers went in for "boss-napping" in protest. The cumulative effect is to spread fearfulness.
Mindful of this, Mr Sarkozy has tried to apply his interventionist, action-man approach to industry. In a speech after visiting a helicopter factory near Marseille earlier this month, he announced that the state would keep a closer watch on the strategy of any company in which it had a stake. He also repeated that he "would not accept" such firms making cars outside France that are intended for the French market. He has summoned bosses to the Elysée, squeezing out concessions just in time for the evening news. When Total recently said that it would close an oil refinery employing 370 workers in Dunkirk, its boss, Christophe de Margerie, had to fly back from New York to meet the president. Total then promised not to make any compulsory redundancies and to keep another five refineries open for the next five years.
The trouble is that, as time passes, all such efforts seem palliative at best. Mr Sarkozy has pledged to keep factories open before, only for them to close once the TV cameras move on. When it comes to jobs and industry, the French seem to doubt his ability to keep his promises. This is upsetting voters who elected Mr Sarkozy precisely because of his energetic, can-do approach. Among his personal qualities, he is still considered "determined" by 76 per cent and "authoritative" by 70 per cent of respondents, says a survey by Ipsos, a pollster. Yet only 42 per cent find him "efficient".
The underlying flaw in French industrial policy is not a lack of strategic oversight by the state, but the crushing weight of payroll charges for employees who are paid above the minimum wage. For employers, these add up to 45 per cent of salary in France, against 13 per cent in Britain. They deter firms from hiring or expanding. Mr Sarkozy knows this full well. He even mutters periodically about doing something to remedy it. Yet, in today's restless popular mood, he seems to calculate that he cannot push the trade unions too far.
The same may hold for pension reform, which Mr Sarkozy has vowed to pursue after the regional elections. He wants to raise the retirement age from 60, which is well below Germany's level. Yet this is likely to trigger fierce resistance on the streets, with protesters no doubt emboldened by the government's poor regional results.
Maybe Mr Sarkozy will have to turn, for once, to his prime minister. The man whom Elysée staff used to nickname "Mr Nobody" has a higher popularity rating than the president, and a glowing press. One recent news magazine even splashed "President Fillon" on its cover. Mr Sarkozy has already suggested that there will be no ministerial reshuffle, however bad the regional results are. So Mr Fillon may be his best weapon for taking on tough reform. If he fails, Mr Sarkozy could at least copy Mr Chirac's old tactic of blaming his prime minister — and then sacking him.
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