Nicolas Sarkozy: Why is the French president so disliked?

Sarkozy campaign poster covered in graffiti

If President Nicolas Sarkozy fails to win a second term, as many polls are predicting ahead of Sunday's first round of voting, perhaps the biggest factor will be the personal loathing that he elicits in so many of the French. What's behind it?

From the moment he took office in 2007, no French president in modern times has been the object of such blatant dislike.

It is an animosity quite distinct from opposition to his actual policies.

All leaders expect hostility for the things they do. Few get it in such measure for the things they are.

"There is an irrational hatred of Nicolas Sarkozy among much of the public, and it is playing a major part in this election," says Jean-Sebastien Ferjou who edits the news website Atlantico.

"I say 'irrational' because that is what it is. Polls show that if you ask people about this or that policy of Sarkozy's - but don't mention his name - they will tend to support it.

And his policies...

"The reforms that have defined his period in office - raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, relaxing the 35-hour working week, overhauling the universities and altering the tax system to encourage overtime and home ownership - have done little to impress voters."

"But they're still not going to vote for him."

For Ferjou, the main reason for the hostility is that Sarkozy was the first French leader to declare himself unashamedly on the political right.

"It is ironic because in fact he is ideologically totally unstructured. His talent is for energy and movement, and it is impossible to say what sort of intellectual history he comes from," says Ferjou.

"But he sent out a message very clearly that he was not embarrassed about saying he was on the right - and this set off a huge backlash of hostility.

"You have to understand that for years the right in France has totally abandoned the intellectual debate to the left.

"For so-called 'right-wing' parties, the only argument they put forward was that they were better managers than the left. They could run things better. But they had surrendered in the battle of ideas and values.

"Sarkozy ended that complicity, and people hated him for it."

Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni Sarkozy's lifestyle has come under much scrutiny in France

The tone for this "Sarkophobia" is set in the cafes and cultural salons of bourgeois Paris, where the president is routinely viewed as vulgar, money-obsessed, semi-racist and dangerous.

Recently the film director Mathieu Kassowitz said that if the president made it to round two of the election, it would show that France was a "neo-fascist collaborationist" country.

His image abroad

A recent survey on European leaders put Nicolas Sarkozy as the most well-known figure in Europe, but also, as its least liked.

In his five years in power, the energetic French President has managed to leave few people indifferent. From the start, he struck a very different figure to his predecessors: here was a French president suddenly in awe of America, fond of bling and money, and in favour of deregulation and capitalism.

His whirlwind affair, in broad daylight and under the glare of paparazzi, with the top model turned singer Carla Bruni after an acrimonious divorce with his second wife, did certainly enhance his profile on the world stage.

But what his colleagues, such as David Cameron, may remember most about Sarkozy is his manners: quick but abrasive, forceful but unpredictable, and above all, fiery.

The entertainer Christophe Aleveque said in an interview that Sarkozy is "dangerous… from another planet… a fool who believes his own lies… psychologically not normal".

"If he loves money so much that is fine, but it is his problem, so may I suggest he get a job in a bank or something. And leave us alone!" he said.

Five years after he celebrated his 2007 election victory at the pricey Champs-Elysees restaurant Fouquet's, this is still held up as a symbol of his supposed jet-set lifestyle.

However as his supporters grow tired of pointing out, senior Socialists are regularly seen dining in expensive Paris eateries. President Mitterrand had no shortage of wealthy friends.

In 2002, the wife of the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin told a magazine profiler how she did her shopping at Le Bon Marche - the Paris equivalent of Harrod's food hall.

But being a sophisticated display of wealth, that was considered acceptable.

For the right-wing lawyer and polemicist Gilles-William Goldnadel, the roots of the anti-Sarkozism lie in a public culture still in thrall to the allure of the left.

"It is that old tradition - revolutionary, romantic - which will attack anything that smacks of money or privilege," he says.

"And it's allied to a journalistic profession that is overwhelmingly on the left.

"Polls show that 80 to 95% of journalists are on the left or far-left, and with their obsessive focus on the so-called vices of Sarkozy, they are pushing the same agenda."

Start Quote

He is far more in phase with ordinary people than are the intellectuals who govern public life”

End Quote Michel Maffesoli Sociology Professor, Sorbonne University

Another interpretation of Sarkophobia is offered by writer Andre Bercoff, author of La Chasse au Sarko (The Sarko Hunt).

He says the real reason people dislike the president is not "Fouquet's or bling-bling or all that nonsense. It's because he broke the rules of how to be president.

"When de Gaulle set up the Fifth Republic, he created a presidency that was very like a monarchy. And since then all presidents, of left and right, have been happy to go along with that.

"But then along came Sarkozy who said, 'I don't want to be a king - I want to be a politician. I want to be like a football coach.' And the people really resent him for it."

For Bercoff, the other reason why the president is loathed is that he has told the French some inconvenient truths.

"The French were happy as long as they were ruled by a Mitterrand or Chirac, leaders who nurtured their post-Revolutionary belief that the French are a kind of chosen people for whom the normal rules of economics don't apply," he says.

"There is still a widespread feeling in France that we should set the path to a new way of being. Look at the success of (far-left candidate) Jean-Luc Melenchon.

"But Sarkozy punctured that illusion - and again people hate him for it."

Ferjou, Goldnadel and Bercoff all believe that Sarkozy has already lost the election, and that the prevailing anti-Sarkozism is a major cause.

Nicolas Sarkozy signing a book Campaigning must stop at midnight on Friday

But at Sorbonne University, sociology professor Michel Maffesoli is not so sure.

He agrees that Sarkozy is the butt of an official culture whose exponents in the media, universities and the arts are overwhelmingly hostile.

But he draws a distinction between published opinion - the views of the intelligentsia - and public opinion.

And with the mass of the population, he argues, the president has far more of a rapport than is ever acknowledged.

"French public life has been dominated for two or three centuries by the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment.

"But these ideas, which we might describe as those that have shaped 'modernity', are now giving way to the ideas and values of 'post-modernity,'" he says.

"Post-modernity, which is the condition our societies are moving into, is far more anchored around the emotional than the rational or intellectual.

"And Sarkozy seems to have grasped this instinctively. He is far more in phase with ordinary people than are the intellectuals who govern public life."

Maffesoli does not believe in opinion polls, because he says people know what they are expected to say, and so underplay their support for Sarkozy.

"But in the voting-booth it is different. The booth is like a womb where people reconnect with the purely emotional. It means going with their gut rather than their brains.

"That's why I think Sarkozy can still do it."

It seems a bit of a long shot. Whatever Maffesoli thinks of them, the opinion polls are pretty categoric.

But as Ferjou also points out: "More than 60% of people voting for Hollande say they are going to do it purely to get rid of Sarkozy."

Perhaps not the most positive way to embark on a new political era.

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