Sarkozy's unpopularity threatens his ambitious plans

( dpa ) - You know things are going badly for French President Nicolas Sarkozy when friends from abroad try to give him a helping hand.

On Friday, his good friend Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, said that in a crisis of popularity the best approach was to keep a stiff upper lip.

"One must not let your eyes be ruled by polls, or you will go crazy," Blair told Europe 1 radio on Friday. "When you carry out reforms, you are not necessarily popular. But later, if they work, you will gain recognition."

Blair's advice came one day after one more poll, this one carried out by TNS-Sofres, showed Sarkozy's popularity in free fall, with only two of five French voters having confidence in his ability to deal with the country's most serious problems.

That represents a slippage of nearly 25 per cent since he took office in May 2007. More than two of three believe that under Sarkozy's rule things are getting worse, not better, and more than half said that France's position in the world was weakening.

After less than nine months in office, Sarkozy's position has gone from a honeymoon to, as one French publication headlined it, a "state of disgrace."

The reason for his decline is very simple, all are agreed. As French households continued to feel the pinch of rising prices, Sarkozy elected to flaunt his private life, notably his affair with singer Carla Bruni, and his luxurious lifestyle.

The French may reproach him for forgetting what he said during the presidential campaign: "Being president of the Republic ... means forgetting oneself and putting aside one's personal happiness, one's feelings, one's interests, in order to have only the happiness of the French on one's mind."

Since the polls began flashing the bad news, Sarkozy and Bruni have kept out of the public eye and off the front pages of the glossy weeklies. But the damage has been done, and it could be devastating for the French president and his ambitious plans to reform his country - and the world.

Asked about the decline in the president's popularity, his spokesman, David Martinon, anticipating Blair's comments, said on Thursday, "The president is here to carry out reforms, not to be loved. We are in a reform stage. We are not going to be guided by polls."

But Martinon - and Blair - overlooked a crucial point. When Sarkozy confronted trade unions in the first phase of his reform program last year, he was able to pressure them and withstand several public transport strikes because he had the majority of the French public behind him. That is no longer true.

It seems likely that during the next, inevitable confrontation between the government and the unions, which will probably occur in late spring, the unions will feel emboldened to stick to a harder line because of public sentiment against the president.

That will certainly happen if, as now seems probable, the opposition Socialists make sizeable gains and inflict an embarrassing defeat on Sarkozy in next month's local elections.

Polls show that the Socialists will score overwhelming wins in Paris and Lyon, where they currently govern, and have even chances of wresting control of the Marseille and Toulouse city halls from Sarkozy's UMP party.

If that scenario comes to pass, then the country's four largest cities would be in the hands of the union-friendly Socialists, which would certainly complicate Sarkozy's reform plans.

In fact, because he has become an electoral liability, Sarkozy was forced to climb down from his earlier assertions that he would vigorously campaign in the local elections and place them within a national framework.

But Sarkozy's growing disfavour with his electorate threatens not only his domestic program. In July, France takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, and Sarkozy has big plans here too.

"When our presidency is over, I want Europe to have an immigration policy, an energy policy, an environment policy and a defence policy," Sarkozy said on January 8.

Unfortunately, the French president has also managed to alienate a large number of his EU colleagues, primarily because of his tendency to make unilateral decisions without weighing their consequences.

He has angered EU members on a number of issues, such as his plans for a Mediterranean Union or his declaration that he would do away with fishing quotas, and annoyed many because of his refusal to consult on these and other serious issues.

Many Union diplomats were also annoyed that he laid out his plans for the EU presidency on January 8, the same day that the prime minister of the current EU president, Slovenia, presented his country's intentions.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that many EU politicians would not be grieving if Sarkozy took a beating in the elections and came to the EU presidency in a weakened position.

According to the weekly Le Point, Sarkozy himself takes the long view.

"My obsession is that in four and a half years, people will tell me that I succeeded in carrying out structural changes that put France in the 21st century," he told journalists during his recent trip to Qatar. "Change is my only concern, not the local elections."

But he must begin asking himself if he will be able to carry out his cherished changes all on his own, and with his back against the wall.

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