Sarkozy Under Seige

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Sarkozy Under Siege

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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METZ, France — This ancient stronghold in eastern France which guards the traditional invasion route down the Mosel River valley is the world’s most heavily fortified city. Ringed by belts of powerful forts built by the French and Germans, and protected by the mighty Maginot Line fortifications, Metz is the Florence of military architecture and a beautiful city in its own right.

Here, in 1944, outnumbered, outgunned German forces fighting from German forts built around 1900 held up Gen. George Patton’s Third US Army for three months. Hitherto invincible US air power proved completely ineffective against the old German and French forts.

As is my custom every year, I greet spring in Lorraine, one of France’s least known but most beautiful provinces, and visit the Maginot Line which, contrary to what many mistakenly believe, worked well at defending Lorraine’s exposed steel and coal industry from German attack. France’s field army failed, not the Maginot Line. Sadly, having come to symbolize France’s defeat in the spring of 1940, this modern Great Wall of France lies forgotten and abandoned under a shroud of national amnesia.

France’s embattled president, Nicholas Sarkozy, might do well to take shelter behind Metz’s bastions or the Maginot forts. At the end of his first year in office, Sarkozy finds himself in deep trouble with French voters and opinion-makers who are accusing him of everything from bad manners to responsibility for the huge increase in the price of butter and cheese.

Sarkozy’s approval rating has dropped below 30%, rivaling the abysmal standing of his new best friend and apparent ideological ally, US president George Bush. No French president in modern history has dropped so fast or so far in public ratings.

French food prices are up a staggering 20—30%. Inflation is running at 3.2%. The deficit has risen sharply and the treasury is bare. Other European consumers are also up in arms over the soaring costs of everyday life. A third of Germans say they want to ditch the euro and return to their beloved old Deutschmark. Even more Italians want to go back to their shaky lire. President Sarkozy and other politicians across Europe are being blamed for inflation and soaring prices.

Sarkozy’s dispatch of 1,000 more French troops to Afghanistan, his decision to fully reintegrate France into NATO, and his warlike threats against Iran have proven highly unpopular here. Many French still see themselves as equals to the US, not its junior partner. Sarkozy is being accused by critics of undermining France’s traditional balanced policies in the Mideast by supporting George Bush’s oil wars and becoming too emotionally close to Israel right-wing parties. His foreign minister, the flamboyant Bernard Kuchner, does not command much respect, even in his own ministry.

A big uproar awaits when the Defense Ministry shortly reveals much of France’s military equipment is outdated and must be replaced at a time when more French troops are headed to Asia, the Gulf, and Africa. No one has yet dared break this bad news to Sarkozy, who has demanded further spending cuts from his cash-strapped government while sharply increasing France’s foreign military undertakings.

But what has annoyed French the most about their new president is his aggressive personality, frequent lack of finesse, petulance, and tendency to show off. "We wanted a president, and got a playboy, instead" is the often heard complaint.

French keep their favorite restaurants and love lives secret. But Sarkozy splashed his embarrassing divorce from his former wife all over the media. His attempts to groom her as a second Jacky Kennedy backfired badly when she dumped him for another man. The French media now calls Barak Obama "the black Kennedy," while it complains of "Sarkoverdosing."

Sarkozy’s very public whirlwind romance with the beautiful model/songwriter Carla Bruni dismayed many French as much as it fascinated them. French like their presidents regal, detached, and above gossip, like the great Charles de Gaulle and the ever dutiful Madame de Gaulle.

"We are living in a cheap romance novel," growls the press after Sarkozy’s marital shenanigans, his Hollywood exhibitionism, and foreign luxury vacations. Sarkozy and Carla Bruni wowed Londerners on a recent visit, but the snobby Brits made savage fun of the short French president and his painful eagerness to be accepted among the high and mighty.

The multi-lingual Carla Bruni is an important asset to Sarkozy, who does not speak English and requires social polish. Friends of hers tell me she is extremely intelligent, refined and levelheaded — just what Sarkozy needs to soften and refine his battered image.

Last week, he went on national TV to answer soft questions from fawning journalists and to apologize to France for his public behavior and failure to implement promised reforms. Few French were impressed by their "American president’s" contrition.

It’s a pity the 52-year-old Sarko’s love life has gotten in the way of reforms France desperately needs. Sarkozy and his able PM, Francois Fillon, are challenging belligerent unions and trying to modernize France and make it more globally competitive. They have vowed to reform the lush pensions and short working hours that France can no longer afford and still meet EU budget rules and Asian competitors. Too many people work for the government, which gobbles up 55% of GDP.

Sarkozy has rightly made modernizing France, cutting taxes, and uprooting Socialist-inspired anti-business regulations his priorities. French voters gave his conservative party a big win, and sent the Socialists into the wilderness, in a clear mandate for reform.

Unions and all sorts of pampered special interest groups are now gearing up for a major fight, threatening strikes to again paralyze France and make everyone miserable. Behind their threats lurks the specter of France’s 1968 riots that brought the nation dangerously close to civil war or anarchy. France is currently observing the 40th anniversary of these riots, disorders and strikes.

Sarkozy’s goals are admirable. But however brilliant and energetic he is, the president keeps tripping over his personality and displaying bad temper and unseemly impatience that undermine the positive actions he is taking. Even his sensible plan to delay mandatory retirement by a single year has run into a wall of opposition from the left and special interests.

Sarkozy’s worst idea to date: a daft proposal to increase competition in the overly concentrated mass food trade by lifting restrictions on the size and number of supermarkets. This would allow France’s retail giants to crush the remaining small food merchants who are guardians of the justly-renowned quality of French food and lifestyle that make this nation among the world’s most agreeable and civilized countries.

Promoting giant supermarkets in France where fresh, high quality food is still held sacred by many, could prove a disaster for Sarkozy and make his next four years in office particularly difficult. Young people in France have already adopted North American junk food. Every time French eat rubber chicken, previously-frozen bread or plastic cheese they will blame "Sarko" for Americanizing their dinner tables.

All in all, this has not been an auspicious start to year I of the Sarkozy Revolution.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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