Just a week ago, Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to be well on his way to achieving what few thought was possible a few months ago. The French president appeared to be crawling closer to victory in the 2012 French presidential poll, the first round of which is almost exactly one month away.
Crawling, because Sarkozy is running his re-election race kneecapped — and with both hands bound. In France — like everywhere else in the Western world at the moment — the electorate has been anticipating voting out the government. In 2011 Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, lost the French Senate for the first time since the Fifth Republic began in 1958. A year earlier, his party had lost all but one of the French regions.
Sarkozy is not exempt from the rancid disdain with which Europeans regard their leaders five years into the economic crisis. Only one prominent European leader, Poland’s Donald Tusk, won re-election last year — and he was presiding over a booming economy that is the envy of the rest of the continent.
And France is no Poland; it’s not even a Germany. Downgraded by the credit ratings agencies in January and with the country’s banks holding a huge amount of debt in many of the crisis-afflicted Southern European economies, the French elite is highly cognisant that the country’s economy is vulnerable to the crisis — unlike that of its soaring ally and former nemesis.
So during the early part of the year, the French election tinted was tinted black, red and gold. Sarkozy campaigned on the need for France to reform its welfare state, to turn the country into something more like its neighbour.
And the French media has run story after story in recent weeks showing why the German model appears to be delivering prosperity on the other bank of the Rhine River. For example, French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur reproduced a set of figures comparing the two neighbours — statistics that apparently damn the Republic and vindicates its neighbour: "Should one imitate [Germany], with its lower unemployment, sustained growth, imposing commercial figures, public debt figures that are under control?," asked the magazine archly.
Accordingly, Sarkozy seemed to be about to invite partner Angela Merkel — they are dubbed "Merkozy" in the European media — into his re-election campaign. Six weeks ago, Sarkozy asked Merkel to campaign with him. "Viva L’Allemagne!" bellowed the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), reporting that Sarkozy had angered the French press by lauding German virtues "every second sentence" in interviews at the time. "German values like diligence, discipline, persistence and reliability place very highly among those touted by the UMP’s core electorate," argued the FAZ, citing Sarkozy’s weakness in the polls as the reason for his attempts to mobilise the UMP’s core clientele.
But Sarko’s decision didn’t deliver better poll figures than the dismal ratings he had endured for months. So the occupant of the Élysée disinvited the German chancellor from campaigning with him. "The French election campaign is a matter for the French," he declared in a radio interview. This prompted an irritated rejoinder from Merkel: "When Merkel found out about Sarkozy’s cancellation [of the invitation to campaign with him], she complained to confidents about the ‘flightiness’ of the French leader," reported German weekly Der Spiegel yesterday.
Still, the magazine adds, Merkel didn’t really want to campaign with Sarkozy in the first place. Since complaining irascibly about the French leader, Merkel has again changed her mind, says Der Spiegel: "She won’t be unhappy if she doesn’t have to travel to the neighbouring country. Merkel wants to avoid being associated with Sarkozy’s recent populist remarks [on immigration and border control]."
Those remarks refer to Sarkozy’s latest campaign strategy, criticised elsewhere in Europe. Still several points behind Socialist candidate François Hollande, Sarkozy switched course. He went from from foreshadowing closer integration with Germany to threatening to leave the European open borders agreement, the Schengen Treaty within a year.
Declaring that he was against a "tidal wave" of uncontrolled immigration, the French president promised supporters that he would preserve a Europe of "free circulation", while doing away with a Europe of "uncontrolled immigration", Turin’s La Stampa reported last week.
With his poll ratings mounting, Sarkozy continued to press on immigration by returning to a favoured target for European leaders these days: Greece. Denouncing "135 kilometres of porous borders between Turkey and Greece", the president declared he wanted a Europe "that will protect us" — also promising to cut the number of immigrants allowed into France by half next year, says Spanish news site La Información.
Suddenly, Sarkozy was level with Hollande — at least in polls forecasting the results of the first round of the presidential elections. Yet the respite for Sarkozy was brief indeed.
Within days, French independent news outlet Mediapart produced what may be the scoop of the campaign. The site has been investigating the sources of funding for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign for years. Last week the site released personal notes taken by Didier Grosskopf, a doctor who once worked for Ziad Takieddine. The latter worked as an intermediary, a fixer, between Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the French government in the years before France’s invasion of Libya in 2011.
The document released by Takieddine’s doctor appeared to show that 50 million euros of Gaddafi’s money funded that 2007 election campaign. "Financing of the campaign is now sorted," the notes apparently say. The money was delivered through a Panama-based company and a Swiss bank, Mediapart claims.
Sarkozy is still denying Mediapart’s claims, denouncing them as "grotesque" and declaring that a "new low point" has been reached in French politics.
But the site has not released the entirety of the doctor’s notes. There may well be more exposes pending in the final weeks of the presidential election campaign. Many commentators hailed Sarkozy’s Libyan victory in summer 2011. Sarkozy’s party still calls the war one of Sarkozy’s finest moments. So it will be an irony indeed if the man who Sarkozy had deposed delivers a posthumous coup de grâce to the French leader’s political career.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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