The Mitt Romney of Europe: Sarkozy's Disastrous Reelection Campaign

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The out-of-touch, super-wealthy candidate is doing poorly with what should have been an easy win.

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Reuters

Immediately after Dominique Strauss-Kahn's fall from grace, the reigning consensus in France was that the normally popular Socialist party didn't have a chance at winning this year's presidential election. But with a little over a month to go before the first round of elections, the impossible is seeming not just possible, but likely: not only is Socialist candidate François Hollande leading sitting President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls, but he's been leading in most polls for months. This is despite the fact that, for the past year or so, "austerity" has been the big theme in the euro zone, and Hollande as well as other leftists started out combating their reputations as spendthrifts.


What happened? Certainly some credit should go to Hollande. A campaign that started out unsteadily has finally found its footing, and Hollande has worked hard to tie his policies to economic and cultural regeneration -- a sort of French New Deal -- as a way of avoiding the stereotype of socialists being iffy at economics.

But the disappointed DSK supporters weren't wholly wrong: Hollande isn't all that strong of a candidate, as his early rough ride showed. And with debt crisis still undeniably present in the European public mind, even his platform, which has featured "investment" in French culture, isn't the most natural fit. 

So what's the key? Simply put, Sarkozy is doing terribly. 

It's hard to tell whether it's Sarkozy's image or the economy that's sinking his campaign, but the two together are a disaster for him. Sarkozy started out as an almost American-style free-marketeer (his policies have occasionally been described as "Anglo-Saxon," appearing more laissez-faire than the traditional French approach) and political dynamo. That image, which one served him well, has now become more of a liability than an asset. Maybe that's what you'd expect to happen when the economy flounders and the president is still bouncing around with a glamorous life -- sorry, make that wife.

Sarkozy has a special ability for looking out of touch. He's drawn questions recently about his 2007 election celebrations on a billionaire's yacht, and his response -- that he was dealing with marital problems -- didn't exactly scream "everyman." But Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is proving to be an even handier symbol of the gap between the president and his would-be voters. And while usually it's easy to cry "foul" on playing politics with politicians' wives, Bruni-Sarkozy set herself up for this one. It's just no good to have a supermodel and heiress telling a French paper "We're modest people," as she did last week. Marie Antoinette comparisons followed in Europe. Back in the U.S., it's hard not to think of Mitt Romney, whose made a regular habit of such flubs as replying, when asked whether he follows NASCAR, "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners."

Friday, Sarkozy got more bad publicity when a poll commissioned by French publication 20Minutes showed that among Europe's top leaders, Sarkozy was, as The International Herald Tribune's Harvey Morris put it, "both the best-known leader and the least liked."

You'd think Sarkozy would have, at that point, either called it a week or, perhaps, rolled out a distraction. What he did was roll out a pseudo-distraction that should have confirmed, to any logical mind, that the poll results had been spot-on. He made a high profile announcement of pretty dubious quality, declaring the Greek debt crisis "solved."

The theatrics, so far, look like they're scheduled to continue at least another week. Monday morning, Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the E.U.'s visa-free Schengen zone unless more was done to address illegal immigration.

Marie-Antoinette, Greek debt crisis, illegal immigrants. What ties these flailings together is the economy. The easiest way to read the "problem solved" declaration is that this is Sarkozy's desperate bid to redeem himself as a fixer of economic problems. The easiest way to read the Shengen zone announcement is as the mirror image of the "problem solved" declaration: the proverbial "carrot" of a debt-crisis-free Europe is being followed up with the "stick" of illegal immigrants draining France's safety net funds and taking scarce jobs. It's identity politics and fear-mongering, French edition, and an interesting followup to the E.U. ad pulled last week for seeming to be racist. Sarkozy is getting desperate. If these last-ditch attempts at driving debate work, it means France is pretty desperate, too.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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