PROFILE: France's tough talking, often controversial, Nicolas Sarkozy bids for re-election
PROFILE: France's tough talking, often controversial, Nicolas Sarkozy bids for re-election
- Title: PROFILE: France's tough talking, often controversial, Nicolas Sarkozy bids for re-election
- Date: 30th April 2012
- Summary: MARSEILLE, FRANCE (FILE) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF WOMAN WEARING THE FULL VEIL
- Embargoed: 15th May 2012 13:00
- Location: France, Libya, Jordan
- Country: France
- Topics: Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA828M9I29BLSMC7CGNMUE1RZTP
- Story Text: Nicolas Sarkozy entered the race for the French presidency in 2012 as one of the most high profile and occasionally controversial presidents since the Second World War.
To his supporters on the centre-right he's a decisive, incisive leader and statesman who has shepherded France through crisis and war. To his critics, he's a micro-managing control freak whose authoritarian style has divided and damaged French society.
But possibly all will agree that the man variously dubbed the 'hyper president' or 'president bling-bling' has been one of the most colourful heads of state in France. His flashy style distinguishes him both from his Socialist rival Francois Hollande, and from former holders of the country's highest office.
Renowned for his bounding energy, Sarkozy emerged as a precocious political talent in the early 1980s when he became the mayor of a wealthy suburb of Paris.
Before being elected president, he served as the right-hand man of then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, holding the post of budget minister and spokesman for his unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Prior to his election to the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy served two stints as a tough-talking interior minister and one as finance minister under the then president Jacques Chirac.
His outspoken and occasionally abrasive style sprang to international attention in 2005, when France was engulfed by a wave of riots and burning of cars, as youths in the impoverished outskirts of many of the country's large cities went on the rampage in a loosely-structured protest against their living conditions.
"That's what I'm here for. To get rid of this scum for you," he told residents of a Paris suburb during the riots in comments that critics say fanned the flames of the violence.
He confounded his critics who said that style would prevent him from winning elections in 2007 after he triumphed against the Socialists' Segolene Royal, whose lacklustre campaign failed to convince an electorate seduced by Sarkozy's message of toughness and decisiveness as he zig-zagged the country.
By the evening of May 7, 2007, Sarkozy was voted in as the sixth president of the Fifth Republic with 53 percent of the vote -- a score that many of his predecessors would have envied.
But barely had Sarkozy ushered his predecessor out of the door when his approval began to come under pressure, his administration engulfed by minor scandals and his personal life taking precedence in a manner that many French people were uncomfortable with.
Days after he was sworn in and he had wiped a tear off the face of his then wife Cecilia, she was gone, leaving the president for an advertising executive who was her former lover.
Barely two months after that, Sarkozy started dating his current wife, Italian former supermodel Carla Bruni. A marriage followed that summer and Bruni bore Sarkozy's fourth and her second child.
Critics said the episode demonstrated an inappropriate neediness for a head of state with his finger on the nuclear button, charged with representing France on the international stage.
Within a year of Sarkozy taking office, the world was swept by a major financial crisis in 2008 as banks around the world needed bailing out and the spectre of another great depression loomed, rumbling on for the rest of his term in office.
And it is on his shepherding of the crisis that Sarkozy has staked his bid for re-election: casting himself as a safe pair of hands contrasting with the profligacy of his Socialist challenger who lives with his head in the clouds.
As the 2008 credit crunch mutated into the 2011 European sovereign debt crisis, Sarkozy presented a united front alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel that masked their often strong divergence.
The end of 2011 was marked by a series of summits on the euro crisis, each billed as the last chance to save the currency. Though 2012 has seen some of the sense of urgency fall out of the rhetoric, Sarkozy makes frequent references to the woes of worse-off euro zone nations in his campaign meetings -- reminding the electorate of the strong stance he took during the worst of the troubles.
Controversy and more than one scandal dogged the president throughout his term, maintaining pressure on Sarkozy's ratings, which spent most of his mandate at or close to the lowest levels ever seen by a French president in office.
His government also maintained tense relations with the country's substantial Muslim population -- an estimated six million people come from North Africa.
The introduction of a highly controversial law banning the wearing of burqas and full Islamic veils in public places was called discriminatory by some critics.
But the government defended it as saying it was essential to an integrated society and that several European countries have passed similar measures.
The sense of unease about how France deals with foreigners was further emphasised by the controversy in 2010 when Sarkozy's government decided to expel hundreds of Roma people and send them back to Romania -- a fellow member of the European Union.
But Sarkozy's supporters argue that the President took the tough decisions when they were needed and this posturing on immigration may stand him in good stead in his fight against Hollande, as he attempts to seduce those voters whose support in the first-round vote went to the far right's Marine Le Pen. She secured the highest ever showing for her party in Sunday's (April 22) ballot and her supporters will prove decisive for the final result.
Whatever his critics may say, Sarkozy remains a strong-willed president and in contrast to his predecessors he did not buckle under pressure from the streets when in 2010 he pushed through reforms of the country's costly pensions system. This brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and led the country's petrol pumps to run dry after its refineries were blockaded.
With people living longer, economists were unanimous in saying they had to work longer if the pension system was going to be credible. Sarkozy's steadfast refusal to cave in is a mark of strength the president is proud of.
Hollande continues to criticise the policy and promises to undo the bulk of the reforms if elected.
As a high-profile head of state, Sarkozy has presented himself as the only true statesman to allow France to punch above its weight on the global stage.
His challenger faces accusations of inexperience, having never held national office. In contrast, Sarkozy took the initiative by pushing to get NATO involved in enforcing a no-fly zone against Libya, which eventually led to the toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
For months, NATO bombers left French bases and carriers to carry out bombing missions against Libyan targets before Sarkozy, accompanied by Britain's David Cameron, paid a triumphant visit to Bengazi and Tripoli.
Despite international success, the President remained dogged by consistently poor poll ratings and did not declare his candidacy until relatively late in the campaign.
But he benefited from an early endorsement from Angela Merkel that surprised many, even Sarkozy himself.
"I support Nicolas Sarkozy in every way, whatever he does, because we both belong to allied parties," she told a news conference in February Sarkozy finally declared his intention to stand in the middle of February,
"Yes I am a candidate for the presidential elections," he said during an interview on France's TF1.
His popularity did not improve in the early stages and he was booed and jostled by crowds of angry opponents when on a walkabout in the southern city on Bayonne.
But a national crisis came to his aid in March when an Islamist fundamentalist inspired by al-Qaeda opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse in a series of shootings in the region.
Among Mohamed Merah's seven victims were three young children. Although the campaign was officially suspended for a period of a few days, Sarkozy benefited from the public's perception of his presidential style and tough talk about Islamist fundamentalism.
Among a raft of new measures he proposed in the wake of the crisis, the President promised new laws to criminally punish people who consult militant websites or do indoctrination stints in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In a poll published soon after, three quarters of the French electorate approved Sarkozy's handling of the crisis.
But the bounce did not last and by the time he reached his final big rally at Paris's Place de la Concorde, a week before the first round vote, Sarkozy was trailing his challenger in the polls.
The vote held on Sunday (April 22) left Hollande ahead of Sarkozy by a margin of just over a percentage point. The result was not as bad as had been predicted but it still means that the Socialist's campaign benefited from the crucial momentum which should, if the polls prove successful, carry him to victory in the second round.
Sarkozy now faces an uphill battle for re-election. Much will depend on his ability to convince National Front voters that he will put into practice some of the tough immigration policies he espouses.
The question remains, could the President's trademark energy and feistiness lead him to disprove all the current polls, overcome the popularity problems that have characterised his presidency, and win his second term in May 6's final vote.
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