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22 June 2008

Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose

President Sarkozy is a big disappointment
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Mathieu Mercier
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Last year, during the presidential election in France, facing Nicolas Sarkozy was another candidate, a woman. France, it seemed, was not yet ready to elect a woman as the head of their state. Ségolène Royale was being criticized in every public forum, sometimes quite unfairly. People thought she was too naïve and, hence, unfit to govern France. Sarkozy thus emerged as the other — the only viable — option left.

Among other things, his oratory skill was largely noticed and appreciated. His experience as a seasoned lawyer came in handy! More importantly, Sarkozy’s past record as an administrator was clean. It was not surprising that the French thought he was the only person capable of governing France after years of rule by extreme and moderate socialists.

However, with time Sarkozy started disappointing his voters with his mistakes, some of them seemingly intentional. He was also seen as a callous leader when, as the cost of living in France skyrocketed, the French saw their president on television, traveling all over the world, arm-in-arm with Carla Bruni, till then no more than his girlfriend (the officially declared one!). In Egypt, he did not look like a visiting head of state taking a day off while on his site-seeing trip. Rather, he behaved like a happy-go-lucky tourist accompanied by his muse. Here it must be clarified that we, the French people, are a liberal society that does not have any problem in accepting Bruni or any other woman as our president’s consort. But when somebody seems to have ‘fun’ at the expense of work, we must protest. It was during the last Christmas that the people of France learned that Sarkozy was dating a famous singer. They were astonished. If people living in other parts of the world think that the French found the president’s behaviour unbecoming, the perception is wrong. Rather, the French felt sorry for the beautiful woman who was seen with a not-so-reliable man! Perhaps, a suave Sarkozy was a heady attraction!

The tour to Egypt was a turning point; immediately thereafter, public opinion about Sarkozy nosedived. People who had voted him to power wondered what their president was up to. As most promises he had made during his election campaign were not kept, disappointment with the president’s conduct snowballed. When people are tired of governance by a certain kind of ideology, they are desperate to try out the alternative. Well, the alternative has failed France. The naysayers were sceptical before Sarkozy’s election. Now they stand vindicated.

Sarkozy was deceptive in his way of governing the country. During the election, he had said, “I won’t lie to you… I will be the president (not only for my voters but also for) every French citizen.” He may not have lied, but considering the conduct expected of a French president, he has been rough and arrogant. Every year, we celebrate a festival of agriculture in Paris. This year at the function, Sarkozy arrived like many other ministers did. As he was exchanging pleasantries with the congregation, a man refused to shake hands with him. The man provoked the president further by exclaiming, “Hey, don’t touch me!”
“Get lost, you bastard,” was Sarkozy’s reply!

The news spread like wildfire and the French were shocked by their president’s language of expression. Whatever the provocation, a president needs to have the mettle to withstand it and maintain a dignified demeanour.

But is the president worse than the precedent? Before Sarkozy, we had Jacques Chirac and his ministers. That reign was nothing great to write home about either. Actually, ‘reform’ is a difficult proposition in France, as the French are by and large subjects of inertia. If a president has an agenda of reforms, he must be brave. Chirac wasn’t brave. Is Sarkozy so? That’s difficult to tell. The president is very liberal in certain aspects and a hardcore socialist in others. Let the future deliver the final judgement on Sarkozy.

The writer is an administrative officer with the National Police, Government of France

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.