Sarkozy hopes force is still with him

French television viewers had to make a difficult choice for their prime-time viewing on Monday night. On one channel, broadcasters offered the first instalment of the Star Wars saga, the story of a young man in a hurry, whose thirst for power eventually leads him to the Dark Side.
TF1, the channel owned by French billionaire Martin Bouygues, opted for another man in a hurry, a leader convinced despite depressed opinion polls that the force is still with him.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unprecedented television debate with 11 angry citizens easily, and unexpectedly, trumped the young Darth Vader in the ratings. And though the political script was turgid, the acting was superb.
The itchy twitchy president inclined to speak his mind, or hit out at difficult questions and aggressive criticism, was gone. Instead it was a calm and reassuring leader who took the floor in two hours of face-to-face with ordinary people.
It was a deliberate and rather effective exercise in communications designed to overcome political setbacks and to reassure an anxious electorate, ahead of challenging regional elections in March, that their future is in safe hands.
It is also perhaps no coincidence that the new image was wheeled out just as Mr Sarkozy was preparing to become the first French president to address the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland.
Previous presidents have shunned the gathering, fearing a backlash at home from association with the elite of the free market world. Mr Sarkozy, once called the Bling Bling President due to his taste for billionaire friends, two years ago refused to grace the Davos stage, preferring to send his prime minister, Francois Fillon. Last year he cancelled at the last minute due to adverse weather.
But this year a more sombre Mr Sarkozy can afford to make a personal appearance, especially as he plans to renew a battle cry that goes down well with French voters – the need to moralise capitalism through tougher regulation, moderation in pay and a stricter adherence to good governance.
There is only  one problem with Mr Sarkozy’s plan, and it is the same problem that led the president to the television studios this week. Both in Davos on Wednesday and in France there is a risk that the president’s words will ring hollow, given the recurring contradictions of his actions.
Even as he prepares to decry the excesses of global capitalism, Mr Sarkozy stands accused at home of defending corporate fat cats in a damaging scandal over pay, and conflicts of interest involving the new boss of state-owned EDF.
As he preaches the benefits of healthy globalisation and urges Europe to rise to the challenge, he faces scrutiny from Brussels over his insistence that partially state-owned carmaker Renault sells only French-made cars in France.
And as he attempts to take the high ground in the battle on carbon emissions, he must face the fact that his national environmental initiatives appear to be stalling.
Monday night’s broadcast sought to reconcile many of the contradictions that have led the Sarkozy presidency and its reform programme into turbulent domestic waters in recent months. To be fair Mr Sarkozy did a fairly good job in explaining the rationale behind many of his initiatives so far and in casting himself as a paternalistic leader.
But the question is how long Mr Sarkozy can stick to his new script. The truth is that for all his efforts, the president often seems to have difficulty in reconciling his impulsive and autocratic political instincts with his desire to be seen as a modern, pragmatic leader.
Take, for example, the conflicting Sarkozys on display in Monday’s debate. On the one hand, he suggested France must modernise – and on the other no French factory would be sacrificed to foreign competition.
The dilemma facing Mr Sarkozy is that he has proved to be an excellent crisis manager, largely because of his unpredictable and autocratic style. But he will have to adjust this approach if he is to set a clear agenda in the second half of his mandate.
Mr Sarkozy may be hoping for the opportunity this time to woo the international community with his new persona. The trouble is that the same contradictions that have dogged him at home are likely to undermine him on the international stage.

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