Policy making in the last chance saloon

There were headline grabbing annoucements, even if little in them was new - a rise in VAT to pay for a cut in the cost of hiring employees, a financial transactions tax, plans to force big companies to provide a certain number of apprenticeships for young people. There were the fawning interviewers eschewing the tough questions in favour of asking if he plans on writing a book. There was the appropriately presidential setting - a grandiose theatre, framed by the French flag, dignified enough for an interview asserting its dominance of the French airwaves, on as many as 15 channels at once. There was the patrician tone 'When one is President of the Republic, one has certain responsibilities'.


But there were also the tell-tale signs of nerves, the fiddling with the tie, the unsubtle avoidance of tricky questions. There was a man choosing to hide in numbers and obscure fiscal policy detail where once he had an unrivalled line in speaking directly to ordinary voters. There were even apologies, sitting awkwardly with the pomp and grandeur of a sitting French President. And there was no killer blow - nothing likely to grab a floating voter and pull them back into the centre-right fold. Even the commentators who back Nicolas Sarkozy are muted in their praise this morning, trying to turn misses into hits - le Figaro's editorial tries to make a virtue of unpopularity, saying that the VAT rise may not be vote winner, but it's the right thing to do, whereas les Echos says it might work - as long as the French are thinking less about getting to the end of the month, and more about their children's job prospects in five years. Given the state of the economy, few bets are less safe. There are also major doubts over tactics being voiced within the right - Prime Minister François Fillon was reported last week as saying that if Sarkozy does not declare he is definitely a candidate within two weeks, he will lose - and he again failed to do so on Sunday night. Even Le Figaro seems to think that the strategy of painting himself as too busy running the country to worry about a silly election is wearing thin with the French.


Then there's his record - from which even right-leaning magazie l'Express found it difficult to pick out many high points in a special issue last week, in the end concluding the intervention in Libya was his greatest achievement - something that would probably never had happened, as a colleague pointed out to me earlier, if he hadn't needed to make up for having courted Gaddafi in the early part of his presidency. If he can't run by showing off the record of the last five years, then, he also can't run away from it - and so has instead opted for apologising for it, telling interviewers last night he recognised he had made mistakes. That's about as far from the traditional attitude of a French president as it's possible to get - and Le Monde reported at the weekend that more apologies may be to come, including a mea culpa for exhibiting his private life to paparazzi when he first married Carla Bruni in 2007 - something most voters found undignified and they probably won't take kindly to being reminded of. Le Monde called this the desperation of a man who knows he's about to lose - and with his poll ratings in the doldrums, it's hard to argue with that. Last week he made the headlines not for any policy annoucement - but for an off-the-cuff remark that he would retire from politics if he loses the election. I'm trying not to tempt fate, but if his campaign continues like this, it seems it can only be a matter of time.

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