Cuts, scandals and soccer push Sarkozy to ratings low

FRENCH president Nicolas Sarkozy’s ratings have hit an all-time low, dragged down by scandals over his ministers, discontent over pension reform and a disastrous World Cup for the French soccer team.

A TNS Sofres survey for Le Figaro magazine yesterday said Sarkozy’s approval rating fell 2% to 26% in June, while 71% said they did not trust him.

It was Sarkozy’s worst reading since he took office in 2007 and was one of the weakest scores ever registered by a French president in recent history.

Sarkozy’s ratings have been in steady decline since last October, his standing hurt by the fragile economy and growing unemployment which have weighed heavily on voter morale.

But his position has weakened further in recent months because of a range of setbacks that have muddied the political waters, offering him few opportunities for a quick fix.

Unemployment has continued to rise, despite his assurances at the start of the year that the job market was set to improve, and his government has finally embarked on a round of belt-tightening to try to tame its ballooning deficit.

While France has so far avoided the sort of aggressive tax hikes and spending cuts announced by other EU nations, voters fear further austerity is coming and point to a recently announced pension reform as a taste of what is to come.

The government said it would lift the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 by 2018, arguing this was vital to guarantee sustainable state finances.

Unions bitterly oppose the plan and brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of France last week to denounce the reform.

Yesterday’s poll showed that the age group where disaffection with Sarkozy had increased most markedly was among the over 65s, where his ratings sank a huge 9%. Pensioners have traditionally been his biggest supporters.

The president’s standing has also been hit by controversies involving his ministers, that have provoked public outcry.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth, mastermind of the unpopular pension reform, has become embroiled in a scandal over the finances of France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, while others have been caught up in allegations of expense abuses.

Looking to regain the initiative, Sarkozy told his party this week that he would reshuffle his cabinet in October, bringing in much-needed fresh blood ahead of his expected bid for re-election in 2012.

Besides the economic and ministerial woes, Sarkozy has also been criticised for his reaction to the dismal performance of the French soccer team both on an off the field at the South Africa World Cup.

When the team flew home in disgrace after its elimination from the tournament, Sarkozy had a police escort on hand to whisk team captain Thierry Henry to his office for talks, cancelling a meeting with NGOs to make way for the striker.

The face-to-face encounter coincided with the national strike over pensions and unions accused Sarkozy of using the soccer fiasco to try to distract public opinion.

This latest decline in Sarkozy’s popularity means he has surpassed his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s lowest score of 27%.

However, he still has some way to go before hitting the all-time record low of 22% registered by former Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand.


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