Dispatch

California on the Seine

Nicolas Sarkozy is now officially running again for president -- but he's not looking very presidential. Will turning a staid French election into a California-style populist referendum work?

PARIS — Just two months and a week before the French people mark their ballots, President Nicolas Sarkozy "came out" in a live Feb. 15 evening news broadcast as a candidate for reelection. In a face-to-face interview with one of France's most beloved newscasters, Laurence Ferrari, Sarkozy said that if he didn't run, he would feel like a captain of a ship "abandoning his post" in the midst of an epic storm.

As a non-story, the notoriously ambitious Sarkozy's official campaign declaration was up there with Elton John's "re-coming out" in the 1980s, after this 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. But the president, who has often sought inspiration from across the Atlantic, also quietly borrowed a tactic from California's freewheeling political scene when he promised popular referendums on the "big decisions" facing France. It's a risky strategy for an unpopular head of state before his own election, and one that threatens to undermine his desire to be seen as a strong leader -- ironic given that his reelection slogan is: La France Forte.

Sarkozy's vigorous non-campaign for the presidency has been going on for months, if not years. Last summer, the president's communications team was privately mulling how best to use the power of the presidency as the ultimate campaign tool in a time of crisis. One team member pointed out to me that the best strategy might be to simply be president -- before the cameras, of course -- rather than reduce their man to a mere candidate. As part of that logic, Sarkozy would declare his candidacy as late as possible -- which is what he has done.

After all, the habits of a French president can be persuasive in and of themselves. The presidency, in addition to embodying tremendous real power in France, retains enormous symbolic resonance for the collective French psyche, refracting bits of the near-sacred power of long-lost kings.

Head of State Sarkozy also enjoyed practical benefits that would have been lost to Candidate Sarkozy. As president, he was able to use state funds to pay for visits with patent electoral aims -- such as a Dec. 1 speech before 5,000 die-hard supporters in the solidly pro-Sarkozy Mediterranean town of Toulon, where he called for a new European treaty and spoke of saving the euro.

The cash-rich presidential travel and events budgets are nothing to shake a stick at in a country where campaign funding is largely public and tightly regulated. While America's 2008 presidential candidates combined to spend $1.7 billion, a top-tier French presidential candidate in 2007 had the right to spend just 16 million euros (approximately $21 million), with the possibility of getting half of their party's money back from the state.

In a sign that President Sarkozy might have overstepped campaign-spending rules in recent months, his political party will likely end up retroactively reimbursing the French state for some Toulon-like trips. (Now that Sarkozy is a formal candidate, France's independent broadcasting authority, which has long kept track of his media coverage, is also expected to retroactively debit time from his future media access, as per its balanced coverage guidelines.)

Adopting presidential gravitas also highlights the inherent inadequacies of one's challengers, suggesting that they don't have the stature or experience necessary for the job. This was a legendary element of President François Mitterrand's reelection victory in 1988 over his own prime minister, Jacques Chirac. French speakers can relish this wonderful debate exchange, which sealed Chirac's fate. In a defining moment of their televised debate, Mitterrand offered a superior's critique of his prime minister, Chirac, suggesting that he didn't have the judiciousness to be president.

Ready for such condescendence from his boss, Chirac was ready with this reply: "Permit me to say that this evening, I am not the prime minister and you are not the president of the Republic. We are two equal candidates who submit themselves to the judgment of the French, the only one that counts. You will therefore allow me to call you Mr. Mitterrand."

To which President Mitterrand retorted: "You are quite correct, Mr. Prime Minister."

Unfortunately for Sarkozy, the presidential aura doesn't carry as much weight as usual. And for that, he can largely blame himself. For the first four years of his presidency, Sarkozy famously discarded the old-school trappings of French presidents. This was part of an effort to brand himself as a modernizer who would drag France toward its dynamic and thriving destiny -- but five years on, it hasn't played out so well.

The perfect French president, according to tradition, is detached from day-to-day activity, contemplative, and fair, as well as a unifying force for the nation. The agitated Sarkozy, by contrast, was hands-on, ubiquitous, and confrontational. That Sarkozy was on full display during a 2008 glad-handing visit to a popular agricultural fair where one man said he didn't want to shake the president's sullying hand. "Casse-toi pauvre con," Sarkozy retorted. Loosely translated, it means "Scram, you little dick."(The latter word is actually a reference to a woman's sexual organ, but it also means idiot.)

Like U.S. presidential hopefuls, Candidate Sarkozy was often seen in 2007 engaging in vigorous exercise -- an effort to highlight his vitality. But it came across differently in France than in the United States. The French, rather than being impressed by Sarkozy on sweat-stained jogs around the elegant Élysée gardens, were perturbed to see their panting head of state trotting up the stairs of the elegant presidential palace.

As to his style of leadership, President Sarkozy quickly proved to be a micromanager, effectively relegating his hand-chosen prime minister, François Fillon, especially in his first years, to a role more akin to that of a chief of staff. But Sarkozy's new breed of president ultimately failed to shake up the public's beliefs about what a president should look like -- it simply convinced large swaths of French voters that Sarkozy wasn't presidential. As recently as last summer, four years into his term, members of the president's communications team conveyed to me in an interview that they were still working to convince Sarkozy's natural right-wing base that he was, in fact, "presidential."

A stylistic pivot to a more somber, restrained demeanor over the last year has helped, but it might be too late to change voters' minds. Most polls from the last two years have shown that Sarkozy enjoys the support of one-third of the electorate or less. A Feb. 10 survey found that just 6 percent of the French have a "very good" view of President Sarkozy, with another 26 percent feeling "more or less" positive about him. By contrast, 67 percent have negative feelings about him.

In light of these dismal numbers, the tactically brilliant Sarkozy is tossing a wrench into France's presidential campaign traditions. His promise of popular referendums echoes a tactic honed in California: The ploy mimics Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who linked his own improbable 1994 reelection bid to the now-infamous Proposition 187.

It is worth mentioning that Sarkozy has already sampled other California flavors. His stylistic pivot toward show-don't-tell presidential discretion is straight out of the Stanford University communications toolbox, according to French political scientist Stéphane Rozès, who advised Sarkozy's 2007 campaign. Members of Sarkozy's digital campaign team are also clearly well connected with folks at the Menlo Park-based Facebook.

But the Prop. 187 referendum, known as the "Save Our State" initiative, is another matter. The measure harvested public anxiety about immigration and the economic climate in 1994, requiring California to set up its own screening system to detect immigrants and prohibit those without documents from education, health care, or other basic services. In the polemic climate of that time, the measure passed in a landslide -- and Wilson, who was down 20 points in the polls, rode the initiative to a remarkable comeback victory.

Of course, the long-term repercussions of Wilson's actions had many contrary effects. Most of Prop. 187 was later found to be unconstitutional, and Wilson's embrace of the measure turned California's vast Latino vote solidly Democrat for a generation. It also re-enforced the turn of California's Republican Party leadership toward a purist strain on issues such as immigration and taxes that has left a once-flourishing GOP hierarchy largely banished to a political desert from which it has yet to return. (The rise of two-term Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the exception that proves the rule. He became governor in the peculiar 2003 recall election that allowed him to avoid a Republican primary, and as an incumbent in 2006, the Governator was able to head off any meaningful challenge from within.)

Could the referendum announcement by Sarkozy, who in some polls is down by 20 points, signal a Hail Mary pass similar to Wilson's? Certainly, but there are reasons to believe that Sarkozy will be less successful. For one, France does not have California's easy-access referendum process. A referendum is a big deal in France -- the sort of thing that a president proposes when he is faced with a question that will fundamentally transform the people's pact with the nation. President Chirac, for example, decided to hold a popular referendum on the EU Constitution because he judged that the French needed to affirm the fundamental transformations that the European project had already visited upon France (and because Chirac was convinced by early polls showing overwhelming support).

By comparison, the issues that Sarkozy has now promised to put to a referendum are small potatoes. In his Feb. 15 announcement, Sarkozy referred to the proposed reform as "the right to retraining." In other words, he wants the French people to confirm that the state can require unemployed people to accept job training and then be cut from the unemployment dole if they don't accept a job offered to them in their new field.

That this is an electoral sop to a hard right that feasts on rhetoric about lazy unemployed people, especially immigrants, seems clear from the lack of clarity about his proposed referendum. Sarkozy has not said when it might logically happen, though it's implied that it would take place after he is reelected. Nor has he explained why he, with a disciplined majority in parliament, doesn't simply push the measure through normal legislative avenues. (Sarkozy argues that the measure should be put to a vote because it marks a fundamental change in the way the French deal with the unemployed. And tactically, it is portrayed as an end run around French unions that would surely take to the street -- except that they would surely take to the street after a referendum too.)

Ultimately, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the retraining policy, asking such a small-bore question seems more of an abdication of presidential power than a manifestation of it. Politically, however, driving people off the dole is a favorite topic of the right, and any success in lowering unemployment -- which hovers around 10 percent and is rising -- might eventually be rewarded by the political center. (In this way, it bears similarities to President Bill Clinton's welfare reform in the United States.)

Sarkozy has also broached at least two other referendums. In the days before his formal campaign announcement, he refloated the idea of a referendum to place a balanced budget amendment in the Constitution. He has also suggested a third referendum, this one perhaps most similar to Prop. 187, that would ask the French to agree to toughen immigration policies to make it more difficult for potential immigrants to legally join family members already in France, facilitate the expulsion of foreigners, and further limit work-related migration from outside the European Union -- all this even though he has repeatedly toughened related policies.

While all three measures individually play to voters whom Sarkozy needs to win reelection, they collectively risk chipping away at his newfound presidential persona. After all, these are issues that President Sarkozy already has broad power to address. A French president who selects a prime minister from his own political party and controls the National Assembly, as Sarkozy does, faces only limited restrictions on his exercise of power. By putting such matters to a referendum, voters might conclude that Sarkozy is asking the people to respond to matters that he was elected to deal with. (The most justifiable referendum is the balanced budget amendment, because Sarkozy's party no longer controls the fairly weak French Senate -- but even there, he has been free to push through balanced budgets for years and he has only recently made this a priority.)

Finally, it is unclear how the French would ultimately vote on any of these measures. That would surely depend on each measure's timing, its wording, and, as with other modern French referendums, what sort of message the people wanted to send to the sitting president. Regardless of the result, one thing is likely: It would, like Prop. 187, be divisive, with one side lambasting the professionally unemployed and the other side lamenting bailouts of the banking sector while people who lost their jobs due to lack of government oversight of the banking sector are scapegoated.

Referendums have proved particularly problematic for French presidents. Chirac never recovered from his EU constitutional referendum debacle -- the "can't-lose" measure was defeated by 10 points when the electorate decided to signal its fury about an array of issues, many of them unrelated. (The defeat left Chirac as the lamest of ducks for the final two years of his presidency and sent the European project into the first of a flurry of major crises, not to mention propelling Germany into the role of foremost power in Europe.) Worse, President Charles de Gaulle famously promoted a referendum in 1969 to get the French to accept institutional change. To ensure that it passed, he brought the power of the presidency to bear on it, saying that if the measure lost, he would leave power. When the "no" vote won by a small margin, de Gaulle immediately issued his resignation.

But with Candidate Sarkozy starting so low in the polls, he clearly needs to do something to shake up a brief campaign that looks to be a referendum on him. After all, 56 percent of those polled want Socialist candidate François Hollande to be the next president, and nearly two-thirds of Hollande's supporters say that their real goal is simply to oust Sarkozy. Perhaps, like Governor Wilson, President Sarkozy feels he has nothing to lose.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

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