He's an incumbent president and a telegenic leader who has become strikingly vulnerable ahead of the 2012 presidential election. His achievements might have seemed impressive in another era, but have been undone by grinding hardships: a limping economy, stubborn unemployment, fierce political opposition, panic over the debt, a disappointed electoral base. Yes -- France's Nicolas Sarkozy is in trouble.
Barack Obama's reelection challenge, formidable as it is, has little on Sarko's. Beyond a slew of Obama-esque political crises, Sarkozy faces a rising tide of corruption allegations against those around him that no amount of "Free Libya" photo-ops is likely to stop. Nearly two-thirds of the French hold a negative opinion of him -- more than the fraction who disapprove of former International Monetary Fund director and noted philanderer Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As the Socialist opposition prepares to select its presidential candidate in mid-October, its two most popular figures, François Hollande and Martine Aubry, hold double-digit leads over Sarkozy in a theoretical runoff.
These days, Sarkozy's spinmeisters are working overtime to make him respected, given their failure to make him likeable. They point to his foresight in budgetary restraint and note his success in increasing France's retirement age from 60 to 62, while also eliminating civil servant and teaching positions. But this is exactly Sarkozy's problem: Acting as Mr. Austerity (which he has to, in any case, to avoid losing France's AAA credit rating) certainly doesn't offer an easy path to reelection. Add to that a flurry of scandals, and it's clear that Sarkozy could be headed for the ranks of France's unemployed.
Like Obama, Sarkozy arrived with broad support; but he began to plummet just months into his presidency. The French, including many of his supporters on the right, quickly became troubled by Sarkozy's flashy nouveau riche style. It didn't help that he couldn't seem to keep his private life private -- whether it was his visible suffering during a rare presidential divorce or his courtship and marriage to a former supermodel, Carla Bruni -- in a country where people expect greater discretion from their leaders. To be fair, Sarkozy has, more than four years into his presidency, largely reined in such tendencies. But the impression stuck; and voters are, in any case, now more concerned with his unpopular policies, the dire economic situation, and ethics issues that, while rarely proven, won't go away.
The Bettencourt scandal, which came to a head in 2010, has done the most damage to Sarko's promise to be a more ethical leader. One of Sarkozy's first major moves as president was to push through what amounted to a 10 percent tax cut for France's wealthiest people. For octogenarian billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, the largest stakeholder in the L'Oréal cosmetics empire and the country's richest woman, this would have spared her tens of millions of euros annually -- if she paid all the taxes she was supposed to. But a legal battle between Bettencourt and her daughter over whether the old lady is mentally capable enough to control her own money (after she gave a dandy artist "friend" more than a billion dollars worth of gifts) brought forward a plethora of revelations.