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John Metzler Archive
Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's August in France, but Sarko's not taking it easy

PARIS — It’s vacation time here in France and next year’s presidential elections seem as remote as some good economic news. Yet, it’s precisely because of the sluggish economy and the continuing military imbroglio in Libya that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taking absolutely nothing for granted politically in his run for re-election in 2012. So while the country is en vacances, the politicians are all posturing for the elections in nine months.


When the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle recently returned from a five month deployment off the North African coast supporting allied air operations against Col. Gadhafi, Sarkozy put on a tough a determined face but did not declare a “mission accomplished” moment. What he indirectly acknowledged was painfully obvious; that since France and the United Kingdom launched a war to unseat Gadafi in March, the tyrant of Tripoli remains in power.

Sarkozy stated, “France will not weaken in Libya.” He warned, “France will finish its mission.” But blasting away at a man he calls a “crazy dictator,” is well and good considering Libya’s long terrorist aggression against France and Great Britain (a bombed French civilian UTA airliner over Africa, Pan Am 101 over Scotland), but the current UN authorized mission deals with “protecting Libyan civilians in Benghazi,” not regime change in Tripoli.

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In the meantime the USA was reluctantly pulled into the Libyan sandbox and has wasted military resources attacking targets amid the Saharan sand dunes. While the Libyan endgame seems to be approaching, transatlantic unity between the Europeans and USA has been strained.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s maverick political style in domestic and foreign affairs has lost its charm; a lingering Libyan mission combined with a French troop deployment in Afghanistan has eroded the president’s popularity. Still Sarkozy’s bet on toppling the Libyan leader should pay off politically.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, reviews the troops during a visit on French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, in Toulon, southern France, on Aug. 12.     AP/Bertrand Langlois
Yet the gloomy economic front presents much more of a clear and present danger to Sarkozy’s re-election chances. The widening Euro currency crisis, though not of France’s making, has impacted on investor confidence. Moreover after tepid economic growth in the first quarter, the growth rate was zero in the second quarter. Though most European countries are facing similar sluggishness, France’s debt remains high and unemployment stands at 9.7 percent, the highest among Europe’s major industrial countries, and slightly higher than the USA.

Contrast that with Germany’s 7 percent unemployment, or rates of 5 percent in the Netherlands and 7.4 percent in Belgium.

The Socialist Party (PS) opposition should logically profit from such news but the socialists themselves are fragmented and in political disarray. Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK) former chief of the International Monetary Fund, was slated as the nearly certain PS standard bearer in the 2012 elections, being viewed as a moderate and an electable Socialist.

But after lurid sexual accusations from a New York hotel maid in May, and a disturbing number of allegations in France, DSK the high-flying champagne socialist, is politically grounded in scandal. This leaves Segolene Royal, the candidate who opposed Sarkozy in 2007 as a possible contender, her former partner Francois Hollande, as well as the lackluster PS chief Martine Aubry. All contenders must face an open primary in mid-October. Hollande remains the frontrunner in the polls and will likely face Sarkozy in the Spring.

Equally the populist/rightist National Front is expected to make major inroads and pose a threat on Sarkozy’s right flank during the first round of the two stage elections.

Importantly Sarkozy’s center-right style if not necessarily actions, has significantly improved Franco/American relations, has gently trimmed the country’s bloated bureaucracy and spending, and has cut major abuses in illegal immigration. While his instincts and impulses have favored free markets, Sarkozy and his UMP party remain wedded to a large social state.

Over the past five years, the energetic and spontaneous “Sarko” has defined a new political style and parameters but has been unable to overcome the substance of the entrenched Statist (Etatisme) socio/economic culture. The country Sarkozy governs remains France, after all.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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