The inauspicious last week of President Nicolas Sarkozy's roughest year to date—in which his much-hyped carbon tax was ruled unconstitutional—doesn't bode well for 2010, either. A year ago, the dynamic Frenchman was on a high. He had just capped off his successful stint as rotating president of the European Union, during which he had managed to seal a truce in the Caucasus and invent the G20 group of powerful nations in the face of economic crisis. The outright mayhem, globally and domestically, played to his strengths. His trusty bag of political tricks were still working their magic at home. And a lack of world leadership, as the United States transitioned to a new administration, gave Sarkozy the space to work his mojo globally.
But the last months of 2009 were filled with policy setbacks, open quarreling within his own party, and uncharacteristic gaffes at home, including a damaging nepotism scandal involving his son, Jean. And while Sarkozy had almost come to count on international gatherings like NATO and G20 summits to give him a fresh popularity boost, the disappointing Copenhagen environmental rendezvous was, despite his best efforts, far from another Sarkozy Show. Some French commentators wonder whether Sarkozy has lost his "magic touch." Some even pinpoint the moment he forfeited his skills to the hot day last July when he fainted while jogging, as if, like body-snatcher flick meets political thriller, he had woken up another person, a mediocre klutzy politician.
Sarkozy's last reversal of 2009, a surprise that came as he was holidaying in Morocco, is emblematic of those recent troubles, which have worn down his popularity and invigorated his opponents—and which portend new ones in this new year. On Dec. 29, France's Constitutional Court threw out Sarkozy's hard-fought so-called carbon tax, a levy on polluters supposed to be the linchpin of his green credentials (and a policy priority of France's 2010 budget). The court deemed the legislation unconstitutional, saying it was inequitable and inefficient in fighting climate change in that it actually exempted 93 percent of industrial polluters and more than half of all carbon-gas emitters. It rejected the government's excuses, sending the tax back to the drawing board. Expect a new draft Jan. 20.
It's a new strike against "ouverture," Sarkozy's tactic of poaching on political rivals' terrain from left and far right, be it policy or personnel, to stifle opposition. (Convincing the popular Socialist figure Bernard Kouchner to become his foreign minister in 2007 remains Sarkozy's most famous ouverture move.) In recent months, ouverture has shown its limits as Sarkozy has been caught veering blindly left or right apparently without fully thinking through the policy or its consequences. His allegiance to ouverture ministers who expressed support for Roman Polanski in September upset his center-right base. And his effort to define French "national identity" to seduce far-right voters has proven highly divisive. This time, feeling a threat from the Green Party after their surprisingly strong showing in European Parliament elections in June, Sarkozy boasted in a September speech that the carbon tax was on par with the legalization of abortion and the end of the death penalty. But now the Constitutional Court has made plain how little the bill's content measured up to its pretense of green revolution. It formally articulated the most cutting critiques of Sarkozy the Reformer—that he is more style than substance and quick to pander to lobbies.
Now Sarkozy is stuck having to reprise last fall's heated debate on the tax with important March regional elections just 10 weeks away. The new tax—by dint of being a new tax—is unpopular. But Sarkozy can't back down because he was so personally invested in pushing it through the first time (and admittedly the principle, if not the final bill, was laudably progressive). Yet things have changed since last fall. Back then, the coming Copenhagen climate summit—which fizzled miserably in December—loomed as an opportunity for France to be exemplary, a role the French tend to relish. But Copenhagen's failure, paradoxically, removes that sense of urgency. The new schedule also ruins a clever preelection scheme Sarkozy had hatched. The carbon tax is unusual in that it is meant to change behavior more than pad the state budget. To help ease it into law, Sarkozy decided households (but not companies) would be reimbursed according to certain predictors of their carbon usage (whether they have access to public transit, for instance). In the original plan, household refunds would have gone out, Sarkozy declared, in the form of income-tax credits or "green checks" in February, just before the elections. The clever timing may have appeased key voters and Sarkozy's nervous base just weeks before the poll. But even if they rework the bill, it won't be in time to issue that refund before the balloting begins.
Last week's court ruling leaves key corporate interests leery and will embolden opposition parties like the Socialists and the Greens ahead of the last important vote before the 2012 presidential election campaign begins. A poor showing in March could give new life to opponents that seemed irrelevant a year ago and complicate Sarkozy's remaining reform agenda. And rebound will require a healthy dose of his old magic touch, the one he had before that allegedly fateful jog in July. You know you're in for a rough year when your best-case scenario conjures a return of the body-snatchers.