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Sarkozy's Triple Mea Culpa

 


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In Thursday evening's much anticipated television interview, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, admitted that he had made some mistakes during his first year in office, and that they might go a long way to explaining his tumbling popularity ratings.

But he insisted that he would continue the pace and direction of reform and reiterated the promise that the government would balance the budget by 2012.

It wasn't exactly make or break time during the marathon 90-minute primetime interview, broadcast live from the president's Elysée palace, but Sarkozy did have the humility to recognise the “errors in communication" he had made.

Facing a barrage of questions from the five “approved" journalists on economic, social and international affairs, Sarkozy was in fine combative form, reminiscent of the man who had led such an effective election campaign to secure office last year.

He admitted three times that mistakes had been made and, in a none too heavily disguised reference to statements from some members of his government over the past year - in particular by the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade - Sarkozy said he wouldn't tolerate any more embarrassing faux pas.

Right from the start Sarkozy made it clear that the interview was not going to be a repeat of some of the Bling Bling tendencies that have characterised much of the media coverage he has received since coming to power.

"I'm here to talk about France and not my private life, " he said. “As far as that's concerned, everything's back under control. "

Thankfully for the millions of viewers, none of the five journalists pressed him further on the point, and for the moment at least the overexposure of his quick divorce and even faster remarriage just months into his presidency, have been relegated to the passage of time.

His major mistake, Sarkozy said, had been a failure to explain adequately the thinking that lay behind some of his policies, and in particular the fiscal reforms which had been introduced immediately after he took office.

They've often been criticised as only giving tax breaks to the already well-off without contributing to the much promised and certainly longed-for improvement in people's purchasing power.

But Sarkozy insisted the reform had been not only appropriate but also timely, although he confessed that he should have been clearer in outlining the benefits from the start.

The policy had not just increased the personal wealth of a few, but had allowed those with modest incomes to pass on more of their lifetime's savings to their children by easing inheritance tax, Sarkozy insisted. Furthermore the fiscal “package" - had been just that. A package, which had helped put the country back to work by addressing the crippling economic restrictions of the 35-hour working week. Employees were now free to choose between claiming the days off to which they were entitled or being paid for the overtime they worked. What's more, Sarkozy insisted, it was a policy that had been copied and adapted by many of France's neighbours.

Of course it's always easy to blame global economic conditions for some of the problems a country is facing, and Sarkozy didn't hesitate from trotting out the often-heard excuses from many a political leader.

The subprime mortgage crisis, the dramatic rise in oil prices and the climb of the euro since his election had presented particular difficulties over the past year, he maintained. But the measures his government had introduced so far had stood the country in good stead and would continue to do so should there be further uncertainty in the international financial markets.

Again he emphasised that the aim of the government was to balance the budget by 2012, undoing more than 30 years of continuous deficit. But he refused to say how this would be done stage by stage, as many of his critics have demanded, simply sticking to the promised goal even though growth for 2008 alone has been recalculated downwards at 1.9 per cent.

While he remained reticent about whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing - a matter which has been making headlines around the world for much of the past month - Sarkozy said he had been shocked by China's security clampdown in Tibet.

Once again he called on Beijing to resume talks with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and said the 27-strong European Union needed to present a united front in encouraging the Chinese to reopen those discussions. Sarkozy will be particularly well placed to wield a little more diplomatic influence from the beginning of July when France takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.

Although in general he made no major policy announcements, Sarkozy stressed that reform would continue unabated. More than 30 reforms had already been passed, he said, and not even his harshest critics could deny that it would take some time for the full benefits to be felt.

He defended both his ability and that of his prime minister, François Fillon, to deal with any challenges that might occur, which could also be interpreted as saying that if things go belly up Fillon will take the blame and be replaced.

The true measure of the political success of this carefully stage-managed interview in the sumptuous setting of the Elysée palace will probably be seen in the results of innumerable opinion polls the French press is so keen in conducting over the next couple of of weeks.

For now the criticism from his opponents remains fairly muted, but there is still concern from the population at large that prices are increasing faster in France than elsewhere in Europe and purchasing power remains stagnant.

And then there is the likelihood of industrial unrest and how the government deals with it. There have already been a series of strikes in several sectors, including transport and education, and more are scheduled in May to protest against job losses in schools.

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com

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