[Viewpoint]A short honeymoon in France

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[Viewpoint]A short honeymoon in France

For a time France seemed to have recovered its vitality, after a long period in the doldrums. It happened last May, right after the presidential elections. I have been visiting France almost every year for the past 10 years, and that was the first time I saw the country overflowing with renewed energy.It was due to the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy. His slogan: “Let’s work more to make more money.”
Sarkozy’s personal hands-on style embodied that slogan. Unlike his predecessors, who governed from magisterial heights, Sarkozy busily ran around places where ordinary people earned a living. French television networks often showed the president mingling with the people from early in the morning until late into the night. He promoted various reform plans, regardless of the threat of labor strikes. Of course, there was opposition from the people, too. But the overall reaction to his new initiatives was that they were “fresh.”
The general elections, which were held not long after the presidential inauguration, turned out to be a landslide victory for the governing party. And they owed a lot to Sarkozy’s popularity. Sarkozy’s approval rating at the time was about 70 percent. In a survey, he had even ranked first place in popularity, beating the popular football player and national hero, Zinedine Yazid Zidane.
Unlike Korea’s “Roh-sa-mo,” an organization of former President Roh Moo-hyun’s supporters, or “Chang-sa-rang,” supporters of former Grand National Party chairman Lee Hoi-chang, numerous Sarkozy fan clubs emerged around the nation. They carried around his photograph, hoping to get his autograph when he was out and about. Governing party candidates tried their best to get as much benefit as possible from the “Sarkozy effect.”
The candidates inserted a line in their election posters claiming that they were the ones who go “together with Nicolas Sarkozy.” They distributed photographs of themselves with the popular leader.
About six months after Sarkozy’s inauguration, I had lunch with a well-known critic of French politics. I asked him, “Don’t you think France has finally gotten a successful president?”
The critic responded with a French proverb: “The appearance of the swallow does not bring about spring.” He also said, “His popularity is so high that it is unnerving.”
Since then, Sarkozy has made one mistake after another. They have included speeches and behavior seen as arrogant, excessive diplomatic gestures and too much exposure of his private life. Four months have passed since I had lunch with that critic, and Sarkozy’s approval rating now is exactly half of what it was then.
In the local elections held in France a few days ago, the left-wing parties conspicuously gained strength. The opposition Socialist Party won many seats, especially in major cities such as Paris and Lyon. Although local elections are different from general elections, Sarkozy was the reason behind the success of the left-wing parties. Voters who were disappointed with the leader of the French right, Sarkozy, turned their backs on the right and turned to the left.
There was an interesting election poster in an electoral district of Paris. The candidate who lost in the legislative elections last year ran in the recent local election as a governing party candidate for district head. Perhaps to save on expenses, he used the same poster design from his run in the legislative election last year. It shows him wearing the same suit and the same smile. However, one thing is different. Last year’s poster bore the slogan, “Together with Nicolas Sarkozy,” but this year, that slogan is gone. I found out later that the name Sarkozy had been deleted from all the election posters in other areas, too. This is a complete change in just nine months.
I called a journalist from a French daily to hear his forecast of the elections. “Politicians are as cold as stones,” he said. He told me sarcastically that it was funny to see right-wing candidates who acted as if they were close to Sarkozy suddenly start to ignore him.
He added, “Actually, the people are even colder than politicians. They are ice-cold.”
His explanation was, since the people turned their backs on Sarkozy first, that the politicians had to take their cue from them.
We can feel, even from a country as far away as Korea, the high expectations that Koreans have of President Lee Myung-bak. Lee is busily running around places where ordinary people earn a living. He is trying to keep civil servants on their toes by rescheduling cabinet meetings to earlier morning hours and cutting down government organization. The oft-repeated word reform sounds fresh.
However, what is important comes from now on. Already, unpleasant expressions like biased personnel appointments, which had been derided as political appointments under the previous administration, and the arrogant words of close presidential aides, which people got sick and tired of during the past five years, are making frequent appearances in the press.
Sarkozy’s one year in office gave us a lesson: There’s no knowing when the people will turn their shoulder, as cold as ice, on the government.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jeon Jin-bae
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