On May 6, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to be just the man to lift France out of an economic and political malaise that had gripped the country for years. Known as the "Hyperpresident" for his all-action style, the arch enemy of former president Jacques Chirac had approval ratings of 67 percent.
What a difference a year makes. A divorce from his second wife and the subsequent marriage to Carla Bruni have not helped Sarko's popularity, but the bigger problem seems to be disappointment with the French economy. He promised the French people more money, faster growth and a break with the past.
Unfortunately, the credit crunch hit three months after Sarkozy's election, and any hopes of better times took a back seat. As the euro began to make life difficult for exporters, fuel costs soared, and growth began to slow, Sarkozy was unable to do what the French public demand of a government when they are in trouble—bail them out!
Against this backdrop, Sarkozy has been trying to push through much needed economic reforms that would allow the French to work more than 35 hours a week and better compete in the global economy. The same voters who had embraced this message when voting last year have since had a change of heart.
A poll last week in the conservative Le Figaro put the President's approval rating at just 32 percent, with 81 percent of those polled believing things are getting worse in France. Seventy percent think the government is ineffective at dealing with France’s notoriously high unemployment and the summer protest season has not even begun yet.
What's a Man Supposed to Do?
Nicolas Sarkozy has two options. He can stick to his guns and push on with economic reforms, safe in the knowledge that he has another our years in which to show the merits of his plans. Or he can do what every other French President of the last 50 years has done: back down and give the people what they want, or at least what they think they want.
Option one will be painful and good for the long-term growth in France and Europe.
Option two will be good for Sarkozy’s poll ratings and leave the French to enjoy state benefits, short working hours and a future of relative decline and stagnating growth.
As I start my tenth hour at work and contemplate a further 45 before my week finishes, I must say I see the attraction of option two. But as I will never work a 35-hour week in London, I say to Sarkozy: stand firm and get a proper day's work out of your people. The next few months will tell us which way he will go.