Sarkozy’s European Debt Crisis Fight Gives Him Poll Boost

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures during a working session on the second day of the Group of 20 Cannes Summit at the Palais des Festivals, in Cannes. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Europe’s financial crisis is bringing some good tidings for French President Nicolas Sarkozy: a boost in opinion polls.

With borrowing costs surging in the euro area’s second-biggest economy, his relentless regional crisis-management efforts have raised approval ratings at home six months before the country’s presidential elections. Nicknamed “hyper-president” for his do-it-all approach, Sarkozy’s popularity jumped the most in about 2 ½ years this month -- a six-point gain from a near-record low in October.

“The crisis can be an asset for Sarkozy,” said Emmanuel Riviere, head of opinion polls at Paris-based TNS-Sofres. “It plays to his strengths: taking decisions, acting swiftly. But there will be a ripple effect if there are more euro-country rescues, more unemployment. French voters could go back to their old reflex and sack the incumbent.”

Europe’s two-year-long crisis has claimed five prime ministers: Brian Cowen in Ireland, Jose Socrates in Portugal, Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, George Papandreou in Greece and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. And while the latest survey gain is a much-needed boost for Sarkozy, it may not be enough to catch up with his main challenger in the May 2012 election, Socialist Party lawmaker Francois Hollande, who has a 22-point poll lead over him.

Widening Spreads

A TNS-Sofres poll for Le Figaro Magazine showed on Nov. 3 that Sarkozy gained 6 percentage points to 30 percent, the biggest rise since June 2009. Le Point weekly on Nov. 14 showed he gained two percentage points to 37 percent, his best score since March 2010, according to pollster Ipsos.

A poll published in Paris Match magazine today showed Sarkozy’s popularity gained 3 points to 37 percent. Hollande fell 7 points to 60 percent.

Five polls this month showed an improvement in Sarkozy’s popularity. Markets have been less appreciative.

The premium that France, whose financial institutions have the most to lose from Europe’s debt crisis, pays to borrow for 10 years over Germany swelled to a 20-year high of 191 basis points yesterday. French 10-year bond yields have jumped almost 1 percentage point in two months to about 3.6 percent.

The crisis has also hit the real economy, discouraging the investment and hiring that helped drive France’s expansion at the beginning of the year. French jobless claims climbed to the highest in more than a decade in September.

AAA Rating

The economic slowdown has forced Sarkozy’s government to slash 2012 growth forecasts twice in the past four months and to pledge budget cuts to prevent the deficit from swelling and protect France’s top credit rating.

France’s triple-A rating is under pressure from Europe’s debt crisis, Moody’s Investors Service said Oct. 17. France is among nations likely to be downgraded in a stressed economic scenario, Standard & Poor’s said four days later.

Sarkozy, 56, has vowed to protect France’s creditworthiness, announcing 18.6 billion euros ($25 billion) in tax increases and spending cuts for 2012 and the following year.

“French people must roll up their sleeves,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Nov. 7, unveiling the measures. “We have one goal: to protect the French people from the severe difficulties faced by some European countries.”

Sarkozy’s popularity rebound follows months of intense talks over rescuing Greece, including regional summits and about a dozen meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Baby Daughter

The crisis-management efforts have also helped Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Support for the party rose one percentage point to 34 percent, the highest level in eight months, in the weekly Forsa poll for Hamburg-based Stern magazine released today.

Sarkozy helmed a three-day meeting during the Group of 20 gathering in Cannes starting on Nov. 3. In the preceding week he participated in two back-to-back European summits in Brussels, working late into the night to sew up a 1 trillion-euro European rescue fund.

The summits came not long after his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy gave birth to their first child, Giulia, on Oct. 19.

“Sarkozy benefits from the leadership he showed at the G-20, his central role in the accord to stabilize the euro zone,” Paris-based Ispos wrote in its note. Ispos surveyed 958 people aged 18 and more between Nov. 10 and 12.

Sarkozy has in the past shown that he’s at his best when he has his back to the wall or he faces crisis situations.

“He sees a problem, he wants to solve it,” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in Time magazine in December, 2008. “What’s more, he believes he can.”

Lags Behind

In a 1993 kindergarten hostage drama in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris where he was the mayor, Sarkozy talked a dynamite-belted, ransom-demanding gunman into releasing his captives.

In 2008, he helped end the August conflict between Russia and Georgia and went to Ireland in the early days of its economic crisis. More recently, he and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron were cheered in Libya by rebels who saw them as pivotal in winning international backing for Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster.

For all his efforts on the international stage, Sarkozy remains largely unpopular in France. Economic woes and corruption scandals involving his close associates have weighed on his popularity. The latest BVA survey for Le Parisien daily shows that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 61 percent to 39 percent in the second round of the presidential election.

The Paris Match poll today showed that 55 percent of French people want to see the opposition win next year compared with 40 percent for Sarkozy’s ruling party.

Damaged Image

“French people see Hollande as more honest, more reliable than Sarkozy whose image is damaged,” said TNS’s Riviere.

Hollande’s lack of experience -- he has never held any major government position -- may not matter if Sarkozy fails to contain the economic rout, said TNS’s Riviere.

“If the economic and debt crisis continues and hits France, maybe voters will want to choose an honest, sympathetic person against one that, after all, didn’t save them,” he said. “The vote is totally open, the crisis is central to the outcome.”

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