PARIS—French President Nicholas Sarkozy erupted onto the international scene as the man of the moment, the hyperactive pro-American leader who would wake France from its slumber, reconcile its obstreperous people with capitalism and globalization, and push through long delayed yet vital economic, social, and political reforms.
But now, one year after being elected president, the man the press enthusiastically dubbed "Super Sarko" has turned out to be a mere mortal politician, and a flawed one at that. "In one year, the disillusion is complete," sociologist Denis Muzet told the daily Le Monde. "We went from the illusion of regained power of politics to a renewed acknowledgement of its impotence."
Indeed, Sarkozy has descended from the pinnacle of popularity to the depths of rejection, becoming the most unpopular president in his first year in office in the 52-year history of the Fifth Republic. In one poll last week, the president's approval rating dropped to 32 percent. Another survey published Monday by the right-of-center Le Figaro newspaper showed that 66 percent of the French are dissatisfied with the results of the government's reform program.
Part of the problem is the huge expectations Sarkozy created in a brilliantly managed campaign during which he spoke to the French people in direct, no-nonsense terms, arguing the need for fundamental reforms to stem what he labeled the decline of France.
Beyond that is the matter of his personal style. While the French initially appreciated his efforts to bring the imperial French presidency closer to the people, the strategy rebounded against him as the economic crisis deepened. His omnipresence in the media, his penchant for public displays of his personal life, including his divorce and quick remarriage to the model Carla Bruni, his vacations on yachts lent by millionaire friends, and his obsession with Ray-Ban style sunglasses and Rolex watches provided fodder for cartoonists and comics.
The outlandish behavior troubled the French, who began to question the president's emotional maturity. "Sarkozy discovered that his compatriots are profoundly monarchist, Catholic, and Napoleonic," Claude Allègre, a respected former Socialist education minister, told the weekly magazine Le Point.
Yet despite it all, Sarkozy managed to push through a significant number of reforms, though some have turned out to be considerably less sweeping than advertised. These include revamping the generous retirement system enjoyed by transport and other public workers; limiting the maximum tax for individuals, including the super rich, to 50 percent of their total revenues; and introducing much needed flexibility in French labor laws. But critics charge that Sarkozy has thus far failed to clearly explain where he wants to lead the country, to provide a roadmap. Instead, he announced reform after reform, leaving little time for the average Frenchman to make sense of the proposals.
In the area of foreign affairs, Sarkozy is given credit for reviving the European Union following the rejection in 2005 by the French and Dutch of a new EU Constitution. While his efforts to improve relations with Washington are generally approved of, his decisions to send additional French troops to Afghanistan and to consider full French reintegration into NATO have met with strong criticism. Sarkozy's support of former Russian President Vladimir Putin, his embrace of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, and his lukewarm criticism of the Chinese government despite its suppression in Tibet have disillusioned human rights activists.
Sarkozy is most sharply criticized, however, for his handling of the economy. Elected in large part on the slogan "Work More to Earn More," he promised to restore the purchasing power of the French. His failure to do so is strongly resented by the average Frenchman, who is having a hard time making ends meet. For his part, Sarkozy blames the international economic crisis—the strong euro, the stratospheric price of oil and other raw materials, the return of inflation, and the slowing U.S. economy—for the decline in purchasing power.
In a recent television appearance, the normally confident Sarkozy appeared unusually contrite at times. "Without any doubt, I did not explain enough; without any doubt, I made mistakes," Sarkozy told his audience. But he vowed to carry on with the reform program. "There is always a good reason not to do things," he said, "and the more we defer them, it costs a lot more, and it's much harder."
In an effort to restore his authority, Sarkozy has begun to adopt the presidential aura the French expect of their leader. Gone are the days when he went everywhere, spoke in place of his ministers, looked after every detail. He has limited his public appearances at home, travels widely to make his mark as an international leader, and tries to appear regal in solemn, formal ceremonies in the manner of his predecessors.
"He won one of the best presidential victories of the modern republic," concludes Pierre Moscovici, a leading opposition socialist. "He had gold in his hands and he turned it into lead."