How Sarkozy’s Petulance on a Proposed Law Illustrates a Bigger Political Problem: Himself

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Eric Feferberg / Reuters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, arrives at a campaign rally in Montpellier, Feb. 28, 2012.

The decision Tuesday by France’s constitutional watch-dog striking down a pending law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks produced reactions one might have anticipated: applause from Turkey, disappointment in Armenia, and vows by French backers of the bill to make modifications so it can be put into place as intended. Yet beneath the international attention–and heated diplomatic sparring  between Paris and Ankara– that followed the text’s passage by French legislators in January lies a less obvious, yet very significant driver in the law’s saga. That element offers a clear example of how French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to be deeply unpopular among voters—and even resented by some of his fellow conservatives. And that, in turn, explains why Sarkozy’s bid for re-election just two months away appears so enormously compromised.

The new turn in the controversial law came Tuesday when France’s Constitutional Council invalidated the text passed by legislators Jan. 23 for violating fundamental freedom of expression statutes. Though a French law introduced in 2001 formally recognized the genocide of what some historians say was 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turks as the Ottoman Empire fell in the chaos of World War I, the bill passed in January created prison terms of up to a year, and fines of up to $58,000 for people who deny the genocidal nature of those deaths. In doing so, the text’s backers say, the measure simply extends the same legal consequences that previously applied to Shoah denial to the Armenian genocide. The response to that move by Turkey—which is adamant no organized slaughter of Armenians ever occurred—was furious. Tuesday’s ruling, however, evoked a different reaction from Ankara. “The correction of this grave error by the highest court in France is satisfying,” the Turkish foreign ministry reacted in a statement. The Turks, however, may want to watch what happens next. All things Sarkozy in this pre-election period in France are, well, complicated.

Just minutes after the unconstitutionality ruling, Sarkozy ordered conservative legislators to tweak the text’s wording and drive the bill into law as intended. That kind of presidential petulance is déjà vu all over again for weary French voters—and even some exasperated politicians. Indeed, many of Sarkozy’s own rightist legislators opposed the unexpected presentation of the bill late last year, as well as its fast-track passage at the president’s urging. Some conservative parliamentarians objected to the idea of the state imposing an official interpretation of historical events. Pragmatists saw nothing to be gained politically from the controversial law just months ahead of complicated general elections—especially given the serious diplomatic and military complications it was destined to spark with Turkey (and the small pool of ethnic Armenian voters in France who’d presumably approve of the initiative). For those reasons and others, a significant number of rightist legislators joined leftist opponents in an unsuccessful effort to block the bill’s passage in January. Some of those same rightist lawmakers then filed the motion with the Constitutional Council to examine the measure’s legality—the move that resulted in Tuesday’s ruling.

It was for that reason that a groan from the French right was almost audible when Sarkozy responded Tuesday by ordering his conservative troops to make wording changes necessary to address the Council’s objections, and allow the text to be re-voted and made law quickly. In doing so, Sarkozy appeared to again exhibit a vexing trait of his presidency: the tendency to turn every policy challenge or set back into a personal affront and thereby give increasingly dissatisfied voters the impression he’s ruling out of whim, rather than in the good of the nation. By Wednesday, however, even this habit of break-neck impetuousness was proving to be ineffective: leading conservatives pointed out the agenda of the sitting legislature was too packed–and time remaining before the elections too short–for a vote on a re-worked genocide text to take place soon.

“Sarkozy’s problem is and always has been that he does everything in exaggerated fashion, comes on far too strong, and leaves people–even his own parliamentary allies—feeling he’s ready to ignore what’s politically necessary or tactically smart in favor of his own shifting priorities,” says a high ranking French public official and adviser to a former center-right prime minister. “The public is fed up of the ‘little king’ act, which is just one way in which a majority of voters say Sarkozy has denigrated the presidency….His prospects of winning an election just two months away are so bad that you now hear more than a few conservative politicians wondering why they didn’t rise up and pick another candidate to lead them, instead of deferring to Sarkozy as the unpopular incumbent.”

Indeed, things don’t look too bright for either Sarkozy or his ruling conservatives as France approaches presidential voting April 27 and May 6, and legislative contests in May and June. Rightist parliamentarians fear they’ll also be punished in voting expected to register deep unhappiness with Sarkozy’s leadership, despite signs of modest improvement in the president’s support. Though the results of mock polls vary considerably, Sarkozy’s stake in the first round of polling has  generally inched up recently–a sign, his advisers promise, of an even bigger shift to come. Despite the guarded optimism inspired by those limited first round advances, the same polls also show Sarkozy set to be beaten by double digits in a run-off by Socialist front-runner François Hollande .

Meanwhile, surveys asking the more basic question of “who do you expect to win” the race for Elysée continue to show over-whelming anticipation of a Hollande victory. Similarly, the question of who people want to prevail—and who they want not to triumph—has produced months of replies that still find moderate preference for a Hollande victory. Yet that less than delirious desire to see Hollande win starts to look formidable in relative terms against the nearly 60% of people who say they want Sarkozy to lose, regardless of who they support in the race.

“In other words, Sarkozy is luring back some disgruntled conservatives who earlier said they’d vote for someone else, but are now recoiling towards him in fear of a Socialist victory as the election nears,” says the former prime ministerial adviser. “That won’t lift him to victory in the second round. To do that, he has to change the thinking—and reverse the rejection—of the far larger number of French voters who are fed up with him, don’t see any consistency or logic to his policy-making, and who think he’s running France at whim.”

If true, Sarkozy’s reaction to the genocide law set-back probably won’t get vexed voters viewing him differently—nor undermine wide bewlilderment over why that measure became a priority when economic and employment problems are currently atop the public’s list of concerns. It is, of course, prudent to note that Sarkozy is a formidable political creature and peerless campaigner, for whom two months of stumping should be enough time to turn things around. But this isn’t the kind of election Sarkozy’s used to facing, shaping up as a referendum on his own presidency. Indeed, Sarkozy’s biggest handicap in working his usual campaign magic isn’t a leftist rival battling him, an economy slowing under Europe’s relentless debt crisis, or the sudden arrival of poorly timed and unexpected bad news.  Instead, Sarkozy’s largest hurdle to re-election is himself—an obstacle that became evident anew on Tuesday. If Sarkozy hasn’t been able to best that foe in five years in office, it’s unclear how he’ll vanquish it in two short months.