France: Sarkozy Rolls Out His Tongue

French cartoonists are having great sport with their president, portraying him in the Adventures of Nicolas Sarkozy as the king of "bling," an impish Casanova full of swashbuckling tales of derring-do. Of course, he's provided some great material. Trading one glamorous wife for another, dashing off to Chad in November to rescue a group of French journalists in jail, declaring himself "ready" last week to rescue hostage Ingrid Betancourt from her guerrilla captors in the Colombian jungle. [See Tracy McNicoll's interview with Erik Orsenna on Sarkozy's method of exercising power.]

Sarkozy looks more like the protagonist of a bande dessinée, a graphic novel in the style of "Tintin" than the head of a well-oiled government machine. Less than a year ago, he campaigned to be "the purchasing-power president" who would lift the French economy and get a country accustomed to 35-hour weeks back to work. He has started the ball rolling on tough reforms, including ending special retirement privileges for certain public-sector employees and making work contracts more flexible. But he has failed to deliver fully due to a penchant for dwelling on issues that are much larger (God) and smaller (taxi fares) than those he campaigned on.

On many occasions, Sarkozy speaks as France's philosopher-in-chief, leader of a staunchly secular France riffing unprovoked about "the transcendent God." On others, he sounds like the mayor of France, intervening directly on issues like petitioning UNESCO to put French gastronomy on its world heritage list. Last month he invited the tobacconist union to the Elysée Palace to discuss the prospect of allowing special smoking rooms in cafés and bars that sell cigarettes. Meanwhile, the economy he was elected to fix is seeing growth projections drop, inflation rise and consumer confidence dip to its lowest level since France started measuring it in 1987.

While France has had grandiose presidents before, the micromanager in Sarkozy is unprecedented. Normally, details are left to the prime minister, who takes the hit when things go wrong. Now, the prime minister (François Fillon) has a far higher approval rating than the president—66 percent compared with 41 percent—the widest gap in modern French history.

To French voters, the Sarkozy show seems increasingly self-indulgent. Since the summer, he's lost 30 points in confidence polls. Only a third of the French now say Sarkozy's work is "heading in the right direction" and 56 percent say he "poorly embodies the presidential function." Candidates for municipal elections on March 9 and March 16, to some extent a referendum on Sarkozy, didn't even invite the president to campaign with them. The Socialist opposition, in disarray after Sarkozy's national victory, is now giving his UMP party a fight even in right-wing strongholds like Marseille, and is expected to win nationwide. "Why should a laborer, or an executive in an office, who elected the guy to raise their purchasing power, care about him rescuing Betancourt?" says BVA pollster Gaël Sliman. "They won't say it's bad. It might earn him a few points, but on the long term they feel it's not good that he's focusing on side issues."

Sarkozy's loose-lipped style also seems to be inspiring the circle of presidential advisers, who traditionally remain in the shadows. A handful of them are now vying with cabinet members for the spotlight, and even taking a more provocative line than Sarkozy himself. For instance, a magazine recently quoted Sarkozy's staff director and religious affairs adviser, Emmanuelle Mignon, casually dismissing the widespread perception that many cults wield a dangerous influence, raising concerns among secular French who deeply mistrust religious beliefs that fall outside the mainstream. She denied the remark, but the magazine held firm and Sarkozy was forced to reiterate his steadfastness against the perceived scourge.

The biggest concern is Henri Guaino, Sarkozy's speechwriter, who authored most of his campaign rhetoric but has proved the loosest cannon of all. On a continent increasingly concerned about signs that Sarkozy is going to ignore its free-market and budget rules, Guaino has in recent months called European competition policy "perfectly absurd," and dubbed the idea of a policy of budgetary rigor for France "the most stupid policy possible." But instead of silencing his voluble aides, Sarkozy has sent them on diplomatic missions, sidelining his highly experienced foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Last year Sarkozy sent adviser Claude Guéant, the secretary-general of the Elysée, to Libya to help negotiate the release of Bulgarian medics facing death sentences, and to Damascus to feel out a rapprochement with Syria. Kouchner was dismayed.

These private emissaries might be less controversial if they were more effective. In February Sarkozy sent Guaino to Berlin to promote his plan for a Mediterranean Union that would stand separate from the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made it clear she sees this vague idea as a divisive diversion from the task of strengthening the EU. Her advisers hoped Guaino was coming to show flexibility. Instead, he just repeated the same controversial idea, leaving "big disappointment" in Berlin, says Martin Koopmann, an expert on France at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Last week Sarkozy went to Germany himself to mend relations with Merkel by dropping the idea of a stand-alone Club Med.

Even members of Sarkozy's government and party are questioning his activist inner circle. Secretary of State for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet has worried aloud about advisers "substituting" for ministers. "The problem of discordant voices in the French orchestra is Mr. Guaino and sometimes other presidential aides," says Alain Lamassoure, a French member of the European Parliament who belongs to Sarkozy's party. "But in European matters, it's especially Mr. Guaino."

Sarkozy brought Guaino into the presidential campaign in 2006, hoping the writer could temper his image as an Atlanticist, economic liberal. Lately he's added only controversy. Last summer Sarkozy went to Senegal and gave a speech penned by Guaino, saying "never does it occur to the [African man] to invent himself a destiny," prompting French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to call Guaino a racist. Guaino responded by calling Lévy a "pretentious little idiot." And when Sarkozy told a heckler at the Paris agricultural fair last month to "get lost, poor idiot," one cartoonist drew the president crediting Guaino for the line.

Guaino has dismissed the criticism, arguing that "democracy means free expression for everyone." Yet former presidential advisers say that's nonsense. François Mitterrand's speechwriter and cultural adviser, Erik Orsenna, says the former president repeatedly told advisers to stay in the background. The concern is that while ministers have huge bureaucracies to "channel data upward" and create well-crafted positions, advisers do not, says Orsenna, and "if an idea is not prepared it can come back like a boomerang."

Boomerang indeed. In February Sarkozy proposed teaching the Holocaust by assigning fifth graders to research individual French children killed by the Nazis. The idea appeared to have been pushed with minimal preparation and was widely panned. Simone Veil, a former Social Affairs minister, a stalwart Sarkozy ally and a Holocaust survivor, was seated next to Sarkozy at the Jewish community dinner where he presented the idea and was appalled by the prospect of forcing such young students to identify so closely with dead children. "My blood ran cold," she said.

The question now is whether Sarkozy can regain his lost luster. Jacques Attali, an ex-Mitterrand aide who works closely with Sarkozy, says that Sarkozy's win in his first attempt at running for president gave him "a sentiment of power, of infallibility" that is bound to ease over time, as he develops "a consciousness of the possibility of failure." That could come as soon as the municipal elections, perhaps compelling Sarkozy to shake up the Elysée Palace. Some of his supporters see a parallel with the early Clinton White House, where internal turmoil forced a cabinet shakeup. But a French biographer of Clinton, Gilles Delafon, sees a big difference. "Clinton was a learner," he says. "The unknown about Sarkozy is whether he is capable of learning. You could say Clinton didn't know the rules of the game in Washington. Sarkozy knows the rules, but is incapable of following them. That's why the real question is about him, about his character." And if he fails, history, too, may write his story as a comic-book caricature.