As France Gets Downgraded, Sarkozy’s Re-Election Chances Get Slimmer

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Michel Euler / AP

French President Nicolas Sarkozy waits for International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde to arrive for a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012.

To get an idea about the state of France’s looming presidential election, think of it as something like the American situation in reverse—especially in the all-important “likeability” factor. In France, the incumbent is facing an uphill (and still undeclared) re-election battle handicapped by approval ratings so poor they make the sub-50% numbers of his U.S. peer appear stratospheric. And in contrast to the American scenario, the enmity of the French public towards its president is so strong it makes the modest appeal of his main rival seem almost unbeatable. While in the U.S., polls suggest voters may lift the politically unpopular Barack Obama to a second term because they don’t see a more alluring option, a majority of France’s electorate appear ready to back a thus far dutiful and untested rival simply to turn Nicolas Sarkozy out of the Elysée.An important French disclaimer is required: With over three months before the two rounds of France’s presidential voting on April 22 and May 6, too much time remains to count a formidable campaigner like Sarkozy out yet—especially given his incumbent-during-a-crisis advantage, and the almost certain bounce in polls he’ll likely experience once he declares his candidacy (probably late in the game—perhaps in early March). No one is predicting anything—at least not yet.

Despite that cautionary note, however, odds remain long on Sarkozy’s re-election. While recent waves of projected voting polls have slightly improved for Sarkozy of late, he hasn’t managed to erase the commanding lead Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande has held for months. Worse still, Sarkozy’s ability to work his usual magic on the stump will be complicated by what surveys reflect as the dark view most people in France have of his presidency. A January poll showed a whopping 70% of voters condemning his record in office as “negative” or “very negative” (versus a mere 3% hailing it as “very positive”). A monthly job approval poll released recently registered a renewed slump in Sarkozy’s enduringly depressed level to its previous all-time low mark of 30%—a record, by far, for a French president expected to run for re-election.

And that was before reports Friday that France is set to lose its triple-A credit rating as part of an agency downgrade of many debt-troubled euro zone economies–and despite tax hikes and austerity measures introduced by Sarkozy’s government to avert the downward revision. Critics previously warned that cost-cutting won’t suffice to calm debt-worried markets and places the brunt of the pain on middle class families (which tend to vote), while largely sparing the rich. Though France’s credit downgrade (perhaps by two ranks) has long been anticipated,  if reports are correct that France and Austria will lose their AAA rating over the weekend as part of a European-wide cut, it would further inflame the French public’s anger and doubt in Sarkozy’s leadership—and probably make it even harder for Paris to deal with its deepening debt.

Voter unhappiness with Sarkozy’s performance may now become even sterner. From that vantage point, Obama’s current and unimpressive 46% job approval score—a level that U.S. pundits have long described as a serious threat to his re-election hopes—has to be the source of no little envy in the Elysée. Ditto recent projections showing the unpopular Obama beating contenders in the Republican primary from around 2% to nearly 10% in simulated general elections—thanks in large part to his problematic approval rating still towering over those of GOP primary contenders.

All those numbers and relative advantages can evolve considerably ahead of the French (and U.S.) elections, of course. Still, change afoot in the French race may not suffice for Sarkozy to retain the presidency. A poll by agency BVA and published Tuesday in le Parisien shows the 36% backing Hollande won in simulated first-round presidential voting in November had dropped to 28% this month. Yet despite the slight petering out of Hollande’s surge in support following his high-profile PS primary victory in October, Sarkozy’s own score has also declined, and now flattened out at around 25% (see results for all probable French presidential candidates here). Hollande’s falling first-round figures, in other words, haven’t been matched with a rise by Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, those same surveys also show Hollande beating Sarkozy in a second round run-off stage of voting by 8% to 14%—if the incumbent even makes it that far. Indeed, with extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen getting 17% to 19% of first-round votes in current polls, concerns are high she may reverse her father’s 2002 coup of edging out over-abundant and divided leftist candidates to secure the second run-off spot against then-incumbent President Jacques Chirac. This time, it’s feared, a multitude of conservative candidates may split the traditional rightist vote and allow a potential surge of protest ballots to propel Marine Le Pen past Sarkozy to face Hollande.

That’s far from an idle dark fantasy. A January survey showed 26% of voters saying they want Marine Le Pen to qualify for the 2012 run-off. Another poll published Thursday registered a record high of 31% of respondents saying they agree with anti-immigrant, anti-European, nationalistic positions of Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party (5% more than in 2002, and 9% higher than before Marine Le Pen became its leader 11 months ago). That’s an evolution political analysts ascribe in part to Marine Le Pen’s success  in “de-demonizing” the long-shunned far-right among the mainstream public. But some analysts also say Sarkozy’s repeated attempts to embrace FN policies as his own to lure back the party’s voters who backed his campaign in 2007 have been responsible in removing the stigma from once untouchable far-right positions. Either way, all the elements required for a potential electoral shock for French conservatives are currently lined up.

Still, Hollande must do more than depend on the favorable comparison he enjoys with the unpopular Sarkozy. Two Hollande proposals have created significant controversy under attack from the right (including a partial phase out of nuclear energy), and members of his campaign at times emit woefully contradictory messages. Meantime, the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party is as accomplished at campaign warfare—and as bruising a political street fighter as Sarkozy himself—and is deploying a thus far successful tactic of engineering scandal out of each new statement issued by Hollande’s camp. True, polls show French voters are tired of that kind of aggressive and divisive leadership, but it could yet prove effective against a lower-key, consensus-building, issues-focused Hollande campaign.

But despite the intimidating political talents of Sarkozy and his UMP, there remains one very important factor that will prove very difficult to alter: the French public deeply dislikes the president, including many conservative voters who say they’ve had enough of him. Whether it’s been fueled by his bling-bling style, proximity to and perceived favoritism of the super-rich, habit of unapologetically contradicting himself, his controversial initiatives courting the extreme-right, or even alleged nepotism, resentment and impatience with Sarkozy and his rule has spread on the right as well as left—including among life-long conservatives. As a result, many conservatives and centrists who have rarely or never considered voting for a Socialist now view Hollande as not only a potentially more staid and stable option for the French presidency, but also the best way of bringing the Sarkozy era to an end.

Yet another survey published this month in poll-happy France indicates how negative the French view of Sarkozy, his leadership, policies and accomplishments is now. Fully 57% of participants felt Sarkozy had failed to fulfill campaign pledges—and did so (they said) because he never planned to respect them. Another 49% said democracy had suffered under his scandal-punctuated reign. In characterizing Sarkozy’s action in office, 42% of respondents described his leadership as “hard,” 29% as economically “liberal”, and 21% as “populist”. “Humanist” was cited just 2% of the time.

Another poll (seriously) published Wednesday found a modest 13% of people saying Sarkozy is a better leader now than he was when he assumed the presidency, versus 28% who said he is worse, and 56% who said he hadn’t changed. Those aren’t results bristling with the hope of a brighter future under France’s current leadership. Other indicators are equally glum. Studies have repeatedly shown a majority of French people saying things in the country are going in the wrong direction; passing negative judgment on many Sarkozy policy and reform results; and expressing disdain for the president personally.

And that may be Sarkozy’s biggest handicap of all. While French polls don’t generally score presidents’ personal approval or likeability, past qualitative studies have indicated Sarkozy suffers badly in the latter area. As U.S. pundits and Republican officials alike have noted, it’s been Obama’s personal approval and likeability (currently at nearly 48%)  that have kept his job rating from falling much further below 50%—and left his re-election chances strong in the face of less popular GOP aspirants. Though Obama is no slam-dunk for re-election, his success in getting personal appeal to limit the spread of negative views on his performance is a trick Sarkozy needs to learn—and fast.

Three months is an eternity in politics, and anything remains possible in the France election. That’s particularly true for a political and campaign animal like Sarkozy, who seems to thrive on and surpass himself in the face of adversity. His backers had better hope he can rise to the challenging occasion again this time, and soon. If he doesn’t, he faces the fate Obama and his supporters are also seeking to avoid: the status of a one-term president.