Everything is now set in place for Nicolas Sarkozy to lose the 2012 presidential elections.
His performance on French television Tuesday evening, in a three-hour programme of interviews and debate, confirmed the picture drawn since the president announced in early February that he was running for re-election. Just like outgoing French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981, he will lose, and essentially for two reasons.
Firstly, he has become inaudible, his speech drowned out by the din kicked up over his period of inept governance, by the noise surrounding his tactical re-positioning, spinning around and clever policy ploys that fool no-one. Secondly, he is significantly handicapped by an outdated audiovisual environment in France in which egos, phony irreverence and superficial celebrities occupy the scene instead of questions about the real issues, demands that they be properly addressed, and the representation of what are the true expectations of society.
Yet, for several days the presidential office had suggested that the Tuesday programme on state channel France 2, Des paroles et des actes, the first in a long while in which he was interviewed in a TV studio and not inside the fortress of the Elysée Palace, would be the opportunity for Sarkozy to take hold of things, after losing almost a month of campaigning against his earlier-declared rivals. The simple objective was to catch up in opinion polls against Socialist Party candidate and frontrunner François Hollande.
Judged only against what have become largely obsolete standards, one could imagine that the performance was relatively successful. He displayed an unfailing pugnacity, to the point of vindictiveness; once again, he demonstrated a clever dose of mea culpa, regretting what he dressed as personal, almost intimate episodes from a distant past, such as his notorious bling-bling post-election party with France’s leading captains of industry and celebrities at the Champs-Elysées Fouquet’s restaurant, or his attempt to impose his son Jean at the head of the organization running La Defense business park near Paris.
Then there was his strategy for the first of the two-round elections, attempting to capture the far-right vote into the fold of his conservative right, using the issue of immigration as a standard bearer. For the second and final round, he made a clear approach to the centrist vote, with talk of introducing a degree of proportional representation, and even nominating maverick socialist former minister Claude Allègre to his new government.
He had a handful of new policy measures, including a new tax on big companies, a further tightening of measures to reduce immigration and a crack-down on those who live on welfare benefits alone.
In the final part of the programme, Sarkozy entered a face to face debate with former socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, widely considered one of the best debaters on the Left, in which the president showed his capacity to fight every corner and using every means, including some inelegant ones.
So why does all that amount to confirmation that Sarkozy is on his way out of the Elysée? Essentially because of an immense weariness of public opinion, and his devalued words. After some ten years of a high media profile, beginning with his appointment as interior minister under Jacques Chirac in 2002, the French public knows Nicolas Sarkozy too well. He cannot rid himself of his two principle handicaps; himself and his record. The rupture, in terms of personal popularity, between Sarkozy and a large proportion of his electors in 2007 is now joined by a political rupture after his five years in office.