En garde, La France! Despite waning popularity, Sarkozy is far from finished (Sylvain Lefevre/PA Images)
On May 6 Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated four years in office as French President. For a man with a very high opinion of himself and of his political abilities — not to mention, great ambition — this must have been a sobering experience. In the nationwide cantonal elections in March his party secured a meagre 19.3 per cent of the vote — less than four points more than the National Front (FN). The latest opinion polls indicate that Sarkozy has a 23 per cent approval rating among the electorate — down from 65 per cent at the time of his election. Scarcely a month passes by without an attempt to relaunch his presidency but still he remains deeply unpopular. Every political stunt that he tries to pull off — and there have been many of them — seemingly backfires to the advantage of his opponents. How can this loss of support be explained and what sense can we make of the Sarkozy presidency?
Sarkozy stepped into a challenging situation when he became president in 2007. If France looked and felt like a nation in decline — La France qui tombe, as the commentator Nicolas Baverez described it — all attempts to change course seemed doomed to be defeated on the streets.
Things started to go wrong, however, in the 1970s. After thirty years of sustained economic growth — les trentes glorieuses — and over a decade of effective government following General de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 the economy faltered and the governing right-wing coalition fractured. Unemployment and inflation rose, with President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing taking much of the blame. Hard as it might be to credit, in 1981 the Left, led by François Mitterrand, came to power with the intention of effecting a "break with capitalism". When this plan failed and France's national debt quadrupled in one year, there followed a policy of competitive disinflation and a strong franc. This too proved fruitless. By the mid-1990s French government spending as a proportion of GDP stood at nearly 55 per cent. The real unemployment rate was 15 to 20 per cent, with youth and long-term unemployment much higher. Even when the economy grew, it did not produce new jobs. Showing their habitual incomprehension of economic realities, successive socialist governments responded to this crisis by reducing the working week to 35 hours, lowering the retirement age and creating thousands of state-funded non-jobs. Attempts by the Right, most notably by former prime minister Alain Juppé, to cut the government deficit, reduce pension costs, and control spiralling health expenditure met with bitter defeat at the hands of striking railway workers and street demonstrations. Very few people showed themselves prepared to listen to the argument that corporatist welfare states blocked, rather than facilitated, job creation and the majority of young people continued to dream of becoming a fonctionnaire. Blame for France's economic and social problems was repeatedly and loudly attributed to the horrors of globalisation and neoliberalism.
Yet only the most blinkered could deny that something was amiss and that the much praised (and very generous) French social welfare system was not all that it should be. Following the deaths of two young men hiding from the police at the end of 2005, France was engulfed in widespread rioting, car burning and urban mayhem. Commentators almost universally attributed the causes of these disturbances to poor housing and job prospects among France's ethnic minority population, for the most part cast out to the soulless banlieues. The following spring, attempts by prime minister Dominique de Villepin to free up the labour market by introducing a new employment contract for young people was met by massive demonstrations and protests. President Chirac eventually withdrew the proposal in April 2006.
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