How does one go from a 53% electoral victory to a 20% approval rating in one year? Embattled French President Nicolas Sarkozy is undoubtedly asking himself that very question.
His private life isnt the problem. His much publicized divorce, followed by a third marriage to a former model turned singer, shocked the oldest and the most conservative voters. But the new Madame Sarkozy has become as discreet as she is elegant.
Rather, the problem is the disconnect between Mr. Sarkozys rhetoric and his actions. What his first year in office teaches us—Americas presidential candidates take note—is that the way to become the most unpopular of presidents is to take all sides on every issue. By talking like a reformer, Mr. Sarkozy has displeased the partisans of the status quo, and by failing to undertake the reforms he proclaims, hes also disappointed the partisans of change.
France missed out on the free-market reforms that swept the world in the 1980s, and has not since been able to make up for its relative loss of dynamism. Economic growth has been presentable—thanks to the accumulation of capital and to the excellence of globalized businesses that do not depend on the state—but nothing new is happening. For younger workers and smaller entrepreneurs, the operation of the market is gummed up by state interference. Unemployment remains around 25% for those between the ages of 20 and 28 (higher still among those without a diploma) and as high as 80% among immigrant populations in the ghettos.
No president before Mr. Sarkozy had directly confronted this French stagnation: Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995) could not liberalize France because he was a socialist; Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) did not want to.
Mr. Sarkozy said he wished to end this stagnation. He clearly campaigned on the promise of a freer economy. But once he was president, things changed; every gesture friendly to economic freedom has been followed by a half-measure or a renunciation.
Consider his recruitment of Socialist ministers—most notably Bernard Kouchner to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also Eric Besson at Economic Planning and Fadela Amara at Urban Policy. This might have seemed wise at the time, but the pursuit of consensus prevents boldness of action.
Or consider his very first reform, that of the universities. The reform provides that university presidents are now to be elected by a council representing faculty, employees and students. Predictably, these councils have been taken over by leftist unions who will eliminate all conservative candidates. Privately, the professors unions exult because nothing has really changed; publicly, they condemn the universities supposed enslavement to the requirements of capitalism.
Another reform failure: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). France is one of the few countries in which farmers, in the face of a coalition of ecologists and leftists, find themselves denied the right to raise these plants. So what does Mr. Sarkozy do? In the land of Louis Pasteur, one might expect a speech about the glories of progress, an appeal to the French biotechnology industry. Instead, he supports a law that authorizes GMOs but makes their approval conditional on the permission of judges who will see that the environment is respected. Neither side in this fight was satisfied.
On the immigration front, Mr. Sarkozy has managed to antagonize both the right and the left. He provoked an outcry on the left and among human-rights organizations when he proposed to check the DNA of immigrants asking for family reunification. Meanwhile, he angers the right as his campaign promise to shift from spontaneous (often illegal) immigration to a more selective immigration policy remains merely rhetoric.
But perhaps nothing better illustrates Mr. Sarkozy wanting it both ways as his stance toward Frances famed 35-hour work week. As a candidate, Mr. Sarkozy repudiated the extravagant law that limited the work week to 35 hours. As president, Mr. Sarkozy maintains the 35-hour limit: the left celebrates; the right is befuddled. But at the same time, Mr. Sarkozy multiplies exceptions to the 35-hour law, as long as the employer respects Byzantine juridical procedures.
One last example: Mr. Sarkozy and globalization. A steel business purchased by the Indian group Mittal risks going out of business. Will Mr. Sarkozy call upon the French to make the transition to activities that are more creative and worthier of the national genius (and of Frances high salaries)? No. He hurries to the Lorraine, and swears to workers that he, as president, will not close a single factory.
How can one explain Mr. Sarkozys refusal to choose, this great capacity to proclaim contradictory imperatives with such enthusiasm?
First, the noble hypothesis: To become the consensus president of all the people when one was elected by just over half of them is a temptation that spares no chief of state. But the allure of consensus, a nice idea in itself, leads to an incapacity to govern.
Another hypothesis: Mr. Sarkozys inability to choose reflects a postmodern personality detached from all ideological convictions. Thus, President Sarkozy has conserved the whole monarchical protocol established by General de Gaulle in 1959, but he runs around in shorts through the palace grounds.
Mr. Sarkozy calls this collage of opposites “pragmatism.” He denies (somewhat like Barack Obama) that there is still a division between right and left, as if there remained only the proponents of change and those of the status quo. But what change?
Without a clear vision, pragmatism a la Sarkozy, like consensus a la Sarkozy, is a recipe not for change but for ambiguity and unpredictability: France has a skipper without a compass.
The French are not pleased.