The Beginning of the End for Sarkozy

It may not be time to say adieu, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy is finally starting to look like a loser after seeming unbeatable for 20 years. The first round of regional elections in early March gave him a terrible battering. As the left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur said on its cover, it's SAR K.O.

The president's problem is basic: he hasn't delivered. He is a perpetual, frenetic campaigner, always rushing out new initiatives and looking for headlines. But France wants a president who rises above the scrimmage, either a remote father figure like Charles de Gaulle—obsessed with the grandeur of la France—or an urbane tonton (uncle) like François Mitterrand, who oozed a sense of literature and history. De Gaulle made France a modern, powerful nation, while Mitterrand made it a key European player. Sarkozy is a mere politician in a country hungry for a statesman.

Sarkozy has plenty of energy but can't seem to establish coherent priorities. He denounces capitalism at the World Economic Forum, but adores partying with hyperrich French oligarchs. France's increasing number of retired voters want more public spending on hospital care and pensions, and Sarkozy says he will look after them. Yet he simultaneously promises entrepreneurs that he'll cut taxes and make people work longer and pay more for public services.

Sarkozy won office in 2007 by promising to clean the "scum" off the streets, using high-pressure hoses if necessary. He began a debate on national identity that has opened a Pandora's box of racist and anti-Muslim hate. Perhaps as a result, alienated young Muslims still indulge in ritual car burning, and France's Islamist ideologues are growing more strident. Thus a chunk of the far-right voters Sarkozy won over in the last election have reverted to the openly anti-Muslim National Front.

His own party faithful have been denied promotion and power as Sarkozy has stuffed his government with outsiders from the left or NGOs to curry media favor. Now the disgruntled in Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement are starting to turn against their president, who seems to have lost his winner's touch.

In 2007 Sarkozy promised to become the human-rights president. But to maintain France's role in Africa, court China, and win contracts in Libya, Sarkozy shelved France's self-proclaimed role as Europe's guardian of les droits de l'homme. Meanwhile, after bringing France back into NATO (to the fury of the military-industrial establishment), he then sold high-tech warships to Russia—which just declared NATO its enemy.

Nor has Sarkozy played France's EU cards with much skill. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fed up with French sermons on the need for Germany to cut exports and increase domestic consumption. She is now calling for a change in EU treaty law to allow the expulsion from the euro zone of a country that fails to abide by EU rules on debt and deficits. The obvious target is Greece. But Merkel's outburst was also a challenge to France, which has regularly flouted EU fiscal criteria—especially when Sarkozy was finance minister under Jacques Chirac.

Paris longs for a return to the days when the EU was run by a Franco-German axis, as it was under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s, or Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, or Chirac and Gerhard Schröder when they united against the Bush-Blair war in Iraq. But Sarkozy and Merkel have never gotten along. They don't speak the same political language, and her austere social conservatism is the antithesis of his hedonistic style.

As Sarkozy fiddles, France's new Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, has calmly been building her team. This quiet approach paid off in the recent elections, as the French voted against their anything-but-quiet president. And the Socialists hold a powerful card they have yet to play. The current head of the International Monetary Fund is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist who won plaudits as Europe's best finance minister in the 1990s. Now, like a latter-day de Gaulle, Strauss-Kahn lurks in the wings, preparing to challenge Sarkozy's lackluster administration in the 2012 presidential race. Bad midterm elections with a low turnout are not precise guides to the upcoming national contest. But Sarkozy has lost his invincibility and, for France's Socialists, that just might make the difference.