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Europe

One Year On, Hopes in French President Plummet

A year after his election win, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ratings have nosedived amid irritation at his flamboyant lifestyle and economic woes. But some say the French want to have their cake and eat it.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures with his hand

Sarkozy's approval ratings could be better

In his victory speech on May 6, 2007, Sarkozy told thousands of people: "I don't have the right to disappoint the country."

But a year on, that's exactly what the French president has done. Just over one third of the population say they support the new president, compared with some two-thirds 12 months ago.

To begin with, French voters were shocked by his hardly statesman-like behaviour with model Carla Bruni whom he married just weeks after divorcing his second wife Cecilia in October. He gave the impression of a man with his mind on ... well, on other things than the business of government.

Beset by economic troubles and questions of style

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his new girlfriend, Italian singer and former model Carla Bruni

Sarkozy's apparently whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni attracted negative publicity

Now the country is getting hit in the pocket and Sarkozy is getting the blame. He had pledged to boost spending power in his election campaign. Instead, it has dropped.

In March, French inflation rates reached a 17-year high of 3.2 percent. In part, this was just bad luck. The beginning of the president's term in office also coincided with the onset of the global financial crisis and rocketing oil prices, helping to drive prices up.

The jury also seems to be out over the success of the flurry of reforms that he has introduced. Some analysts have praised his easing of France's 35-hour week, his reduction of pension benefits and his reforms of the country's overcrowded and impoverished universities.

"Sarkozy had the courage to do what other presidents didn't," Philippe Braud, a professor at the Sciences Po Institute in Paris, told AFP news agency. "His track record is not to be underestimated even if the French aren't convinced," he added.

Unemployment levels at historic low

strikers carrying banners

The president's reforms sparked strikes among civil servants and railway workers in November.

Braud also pointed to Sarkozy's achievement in streamlining France's notoriously complicated labor laws. The jobless rate has dropped to 7.5 percent, the lowest level in two decades, since he took office.

However, he said the president had announced too many projects at once and then not been able to deliver.

Bruno Jeanbart, of the Opinionway polling institute, is of a similar opinion. He praised Sarkozy's reform zeal, but also told AFP that "there are also many areas he engaged in but in which he was perhaps too optimistic or has not followed through." He named these as spending power and the country's public deficit.

Other observers are more critical, saying that he bought the highly symbolic abolition of early pensions for civil servants by making expensive concessions and that rigid labor market structures remain largely untouched despite the shift away from a 35-hour week.

"He took over a country that was feeling insecure and which regarded him as the last chance to solve their structural problems," said the political scientist Dominique Moisi. "He failed to convince the French and offer them security."

A parliamentary report released this month also described as both costly and ineffective one of Sarkozy's flagship reforms, aimed at boosting incomes with a tax break on overtime pay.

The French conservative newspaper Le Figaro criticizes Sarkozy only insofar as he did not make sufficiently clear that the changes would hurt. "The French approve of the reforms of Nicolas Sarkozy, but condemn the reformer. They're a bit like a child that pushes away the helping hand because it doesn't like the bitter taste of the medicine," it wrote.

Sarkozy admits some of the problems are his fault

Sarkozy seated with Libya's President Gaddhafi

Critics have also accused Sarkozy of compromising France's human rights profile for business contracts

The French president is trying to regain the population's confidence. Just a few days ago he confessed in a TV interview: "I have made mistakes." And Sarkozy has learned something from them, cutting out, for example, his public strutting with Carla.

But apart from tackling style issues, his options are limited. There is no money to kickstart the floundering economy. In January, he confessed that he could not do much to help because the state "coffers were empty."

France -- which is set to take over the rotating EU presidency in July -- is also facing mounting pressure from other European Union member states to slash its total public deficit of around 1.2 trillion euros.

He also knows that backing down from his reform program would cost him his remaining credibility. "I am completely aware of the dissatisfaction, but I know where I want to take things," said Sarkozy.

The honeymoon may be over, but Sarkozy is hoping to persuade the electorate of the merits of a long-term relationship. He is asking them to be patient.

"The important 'rendezvous' will come at the end of my five years in office," said Sarkozy.

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