As a Frenchman working and living in England, I was particularly interested in the recent visit of my President and was glad to see that it went quite well as he was able to show, albeit a bit tense at times, that he could follow with grace and without too much trouble the stiff protocol of his Royal hosts which somewhat characterises the English way of doing things.
His call for a “renewed fraternity between the two countries that have so much in common”, suggesting to elevate “entente cordiale” to “entente amicale”, his more liberal Anglo-Saxon views on many subjects, repeating at length that France had much to learn from the English, seemed to have made him more acceptable on this side of the Channel.
The English press’ comments, usually quite severe, were for those reasons mainly positive although a photograph in a leading Financial newspaper showing the couple’s heels with flat shoes for Madame and compensated ones for Monsieur was not of best taste. I found it also unfortunate that our President was not able to speak English during his various addresses. This was not caused as one could be led to think by his belief in the superiority of the French language, but just simply because of his inability of expressing himself in the language of Shakespeare. This indeed compared poorly with the impeccable French used by ex-Prime Minister Blair.
Despite the lack of concrete business deals such as the highly hoped nuclear plants, the ‘performance’ of our President, although from time to time upstaged by his wife, Carla Bruni, who seemed to be able to really charm her English audience, must have come as a relief to the French population who had criticised Mr Sarkozy’s casual and arrogant style, not to mention his ex-wife’s behaviour who, not long ago, said that she was proud of not having any French blood. Mr Sarkozy himself has had also a good string of cultural ‘faux pas’ including texting on his mobile during an audience with the Pope and showing the sole of his shoe towards Arab dignitaries.
Displaying without restraint the details of his private life, enjoying a nouveau riche life style with his wealthy friends from the business world, sporting Ray-ban sunglasses and a large Rolex watch have not pleased a good portion of the French population who are finding current times very hard and who are more used to a more conservative presidential style carried out by most of his predecessors like Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand.
Mr Sarkozy’s ‘performance’ in England may not unfortunately help him in the short term recover his popular rating caught in the low 30s since the beginning of this year and this just after 8 months after his clear and decisive election. This result is in fact of course not just the consequence of his personal style which many have found offensive.
Our President had been elected based mainly on his promises to increase the purchasing power of a good fraction of French workers and to implement a full scope of needed reforms, a subject which had been ignored for convenience by his predecessors too afraid to tackle the unions and the benefits granted over time to the numerous state agents. He was indeed keen to show a ‘rupture’ with his predecessors’ policies and make ‘the French work more to earn more’ criticising on many occasions the socialists’ implementation of a 35 hour week.
Many of his voters had been impressed during his election campaign by his energy, his enthusiasm and his intentions, but in fact, almost a year later, most of them have not seen much progress and change in the size of their wallet. Words like: “The coffers are empty…where do you suggest I get the money to give you?” spoken by Mr Sarkozy during last autumn have left a sore feeling.
Although a clear majority of the French population believes that reforms are necessary, few actually want to see these affect them personally. Contrary to quite a few other countries where the same kind of reforms have been accepted and implemented over the last few years, the French, through their unabated individualism, are always ready to resist these necessary changes.
As a result and despite a few positive reforms which unfortunately were not fully appreciated, the French are now showing some clear delusion with their President and this was mainly the cause for the bad results of his party during the recent local elections with the left regaining many of the cities lost to the right during the previous elections and again gaining a majority of the popular votes.
I still wish our President to succeed in carrying out his programme for the good of France as we can’t afford to lose another four years. England had its ‘Iron Lady’, we need an ‘Iron Man’. As mentioned earlier, his immediate predecessors, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand, hated to confront the voices of the street and if we can be thankful to Chirac for having avoided being drawn into the war in Iraq, we can only regret their status quo stand which allowed France to lose in its competitiveness compared to other major economic powers and this even within the EU.
There have been recently numerous calls in France for our President to change his style, to reorient his presidency, to revive the action of his government and to stop trying to do everything himself. President Sarkozy’s state visit may have offered him that new starting point.