Thursday, January 31, 2008


It's no secret that Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings have been declining. Two recent polls suggest that 52-55% percent now think that France is "headed in the wrong direction." Fillon now scores higher ratings than Sarko.

Two explanations are generally advanced for this decline: the Bruni/bling-bling argument and the pouvoir d'achat/puissance de la présidence argument.

The Bruni/bling-bling argument holds that the president's exploitation of his private life, meretricious tastes, and lavish self-indulgence have offended some voters, particularly elder voters, and destroyed the alternative image that Sarko had, with some success, attempted to create for himself, namely, that of a hard-working, even ascetic, statesman who had made a gift of his person to France. As François Hollande neatly encapsulates the case, "Sarkozy is paying dearly for his vacations."

The pouvoir d'achat/puissance de la présidence argument holds that Sarkozy's candid press-conference statement that there is really very little that the president can do to increase purchasing power undermined his effort to portray himself as a wizard capable of effecting change merely by willing it. Libé compares this misstep to Mitterrand's statement that "we've tried everything" to remedy the unemployment situation and to Jospin's statement that the state could do nothing to prevent Michelin from closing a plant. These moments of accidental candor puncture the illusion of presidential power, which, according to this theory, a president must do everything to maintain.

There are two problems with these arguments. The first is that presidents nearly always decline sharply in popularity once the "state of grace" is over. In retrospect it's always easy to find the "missteps" that explain the inevitable. The second is that the people are taken for gullible dupes, who fall time and again for the illusion of presidential omnipotence, as though intoxicated by the wine of promises that flows freely in campaigns, only to wake up with a hangover the morning after.

Perhaps what the polls actually reflect is a failure of pedagogy. One of the roles of a president is to be a teacher. Sarkozy as campaigner was actually a pretty good teacher, better, at any rate, than his opponents. He set forth a plausible view of certain genuine problems with the French economy. The French work fewer annual hours per capita than their neighbors, for instance. Voters found his lecture series interesting and elected him. He made a few changes. Certain promised results have yet to appear. People therefore expect another series of lectures: now that you've taken some steps and seen the results, how has your assessment of the situation changed? What steps do you plan to take next? An admission of non-omnipotence is actually a first, and healthy, step. But nothing further has been heard.

We know that Sarkozy's campaign lecture series was swotted up with the help of Emmanuelle Mignon and the various intellectuals she enlisted to prepare the candidate on a range of issues. But now that he is in office, he finds himself too busy, too solicited on all sides, to continue his education. And having crammed himself for the exam without acquiring the capacity to think through the issues for himself, he finds himself without ready answers, and therefore is testy when pressed. Anyone who has taught can recognize the bright student who falls back on answers learned by rote, who has excelled in an introductory course but who is likely to hit a wall in a more advanced and demanding setting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Anyone who has taught can recognize the bright student who falls back on answers learned by rote, who has excelled in an introductory course but who is likely to hit a wall in a more advanced and demanding setting."

Bingo. Excellent characterization. In his times, Chirac also was considered as a good campaigner but a disastrous leader. That would be the last irony if Sarkozy would reveal himself as the same breed of politicians than his predecessor.