French Voters Are Already Counting Sarkozy Out

Take heart, Barack Obama: there are more vulnerable incumbent presidents than you

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Two-thirds of French voters now think President Nicolas Sarkozy will lose if he runs for reelection, new polls show. That includes a majority of Sarkozy's own party, and follows a long series of setbacks, capped in September's elections by France's Socialist Party retaking the nation's Senate for the first time in 50 years.

What happened to the smooth operator who was supposed to be capable of transcending this fate? Foreign Policy is among the outlets trying to dissect the Sarkozy collapse.

Sarkozy's meager approval ratings -- generally just one voter in three supports him -- have hardly budged in 18 months, their steadiness in stark contrast with the turbulent mountains and valleys etched on European stock market graphs.

The French electorate is notoriously mercurial and pessimistic, but this moment is especially bad. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, endured lengthy periods of disapproval, but the French are far more troubled now than they were at any time during his 12-year presidency. Nearly nine voters in 10 are worried about the state of the country, and more than three in four are concerned about their own economic situation. Two in three fear for their own job or that of someone close to them. Such sentiments are significantly direr than they were at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis or prior to the country's overwhelming take-this-European-Constitution-and-shove-it vote in 2005.

Part of the problem is the dire economics of the European Union, convulsed as it is by a debt crisis. Austerity may or may not be the solution, but it is certainly not popular.

There's also the problem of corruption. Fresh off the Bettencourt scandal, in which the public disclosure of the finances of the heiress to the L'Oreal fortune shed unwelcome light on a web of shadowy campaign cash transactions and tax changes to benefit the hyper-rich. The latest is named, like a middle chapter of a spy novel, the Karachi Affair:

On top of the bad election results, just last week two Sarkozy intimates -- including the best man at Sarkozy's 2008 wedding -- were charged with misuse of public funds in what the French media call the "Karachi Affair." A French court is looking into whether kickbacks from a sale of military submarines to Pakistan in the 1990s funded the 1995 failed presidential campaign of Édouard Balladur, prime minister at the time. Sarkozy had been budget minister from 1993 to 1995 under Balladur and was also his campaign manager, though the Élysée Palace denies that Sarkozy had any authority over the financing of that campaign.

The Karachi Affair isn't just about cash-stuffed suitcases. A 2002 terrorist attack in Pakistan's largest city killed at least 14 employees of a naval defense company, most of whom were French, on their way to a Pakistani dockyard to work on one of the military submarines in question. Some have brought up the possibility that Pakistani authorities orchestrated the killing as a long-distance retaliation against the French for cutting off kickbacks to officials there. 

The scandals are real, says TIME: "In a country where political manipulation of the justice system—and quashing of cases threatening to the rich and powerful elite—was a long-standing practice that many people fear the ruling class is trying to restore, the current line out of the Elysée sounds like indignation and rage designed to deflect attention from the scandals at the heart of events."

Thus the continuing concern among supporters of Sarkozy's UMP party. A majority of the general public now would rather see his foreign secretary run in 2012. Yet a majority, 54 percent of the UMP, still think Sarkozy is the best man to lead their ticket. They're just not so sure he can win.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.