Sarko in free-fall

Sarko in free-fall

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s already declining popularity went into a precipitous free-fall over the weekend, and he seems to be taking political allies and family members down with him. The latest victim of Sarkozy’s whims is presidential spokesman David Martinon, for whom the President had personally secured the nomination of his party, the UMP, in the election for mayor of Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, Sarkozy’s former office. The president’s intervention in the race wasn’t popular to begin with, and Martinon’s poll numbers sank accordingly. Then this weekend, the president’s 21-year-old son, Jean Sarkozy, announced he was no longer supporting Martinon and would form a rival UMP campaign along with two allies. The publicly humiliated Martinon dropped out of the race.

With Sarkozy out of the country in South America at the time, Jean’s move certainly seemed like a political hit orchestrated on his father’s behalf. The Neuilly affair, with its soap opera overtones (The French press has dubbed it Dallas-sur-Seine.) could not have come at a worse time for Sarkozy, who is also embroiled in a tabloid scandal over text messages he may or may not have sent his ex-wife Cecilia immediately before his recent marriage to singer and former model Carla Bruni. On Monday, Sarkozy’s approval rating sank to 39 percent, a 19 point drop since December.

Sarkozy’s brash style, which was once his greatest selling point for French voters frustrated by years of political paralysis, appears to have lost its appeal. This may also be part of the reason for his shift away from the controverisal “Anglo-Saxon” economic reforms he emphasized during the first years of his presidency toward the amorphous, socialist-ish, “policy of civilization” he laid out in a speech in January.

But Sarkozy is going to have trouble enacting policies from the right or the left unless he can get his house in order and find a way convince voters that he is neither a distracted dilettante nor a petty autocrat. It’s good news for everyone that Jean will not be running for mayor in Martinon’s place, as many had predicted, and it would probably be best if the chip-off-the-old-block kept a low profile for a while. As for Martinon, his offer to resign as the elder Sarkozy’s spokesman was rejected, so he now has the unenviable job of helping restore the public image of the boss who publicly humiliated him.