This has been a tough year for France. Since January, French President Nikolas Sarkozy has dealt with one political scandal after another. France’s economy is in crisis mode, like most of the continent. And (ouch) the vaunted French soccer team left the World Cup in disgrace, accused of boorish behavior.
Taken together, these events highlight a new reality that has been apparent in Europe for some time but is just beginning to sink in elsewhere: French influence is on the wane. And with Germany increasingly taking the lead in all things European, the French are struggling to remain relevant.
“There’s a crisis of this presidency,” Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, told The Fiscal Times Monday. “Sarkozy turned out to be less likable than people thought and less able to control the agenda. He may have gotten sidetracked by his own personal concerns. He may have been too vain.”
As the country paused this month to celebrate Bastille Day, Sarkozy was forced to deny any wrongdoing in a widening political scandal centered on illegal political contributions from Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetic fortune and the wealthiest woman in Europe. In a story that would be comical if it were not so freighted with dire political consequences, tapes released by Bettencourt’s former butler reveal that Bettencourt paid off Sarkozy’s labor minister, Éric Woerth, with envelopes of cash. Woerth has been forced to resign his post. This revelation is the latest in a series of odd events in "l'affaire Bettencourt," as the French press delicately calls it, involving estranged children and celebrity photographers. Several of Bettencourt’s associates were detained by police last week, and the probe is now reaching high into Sarkozy’s government.
Sarkozy’s problems have attracted only modest attention in the U.S., which has weathered its share of dramatic political scandals in recent decades – think President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial and the Jack Abramoff congressional lobbying scandal. An ancillary of Sarkozy’s political and legal woes is months-long speculation about the status of his marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni. Rumors raged throughout the spring that Sarkozy was having an affair with Chantal Jouanno, a right-wing cabinet minister and former karate champion. At the same time, the French rumor mill hummed with speculation that Bruni had taken up with French singer Benjamin Biolay.
Sarkozy and Bruni have both denied being unfaithful, but the tales of infidelity came at an awkward moment, as European leaders were grappling with the continent’s most serious financial crisis since the creation of the euro. In March, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood at center stage, helping to orchestrate Europe’s response to the Greek debt crisis, Sarkozy was the object of gossip and snickering, and the European establishment largely ignored his suggestions. In the latest example, Sarkozy’s calls for deficit spending across the euro zone to combat the financial crisis have been ignored. Germany has called for austerity, pledging to cut public spending by $95 billion through 2014. Other European countries, including Spain, Italy and Ireland, have all passed austerity packages of their own.
And now, as the second stage of the European crisis begins to unfold – with stressed private banks facing some $2.6 trillion in short-term debt payments in the coming months – Sarkozy is once again dealing with shameful soap operas that have come to dominate modern day French politics instead of the real business of Europe.
By contrast, the straight-laced Merkel enjoys a commanding presence in European politics. For sure, she took her lumps during the early days of the Greek crisis, when some complained about her halting response to it, and her party suffered setbacks at home. But much of that has been forgotten amid the hubbub over Sarkozy’s humiliating political and legal woes. Her no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to world affairs is greatly appreciated by other leaders and policy experts, especially in Washington, while Sarkozy’s performance evokes little more than eye-rolling.
His approval ratings, already low from France’s economic problems, have plummeted even more with the Bettencourt scandal playing out in the newspapers and TV reports. The controversy has captivated the French as they begin the long summer holiday. As The New York Times reported over the weekend, Sarkozy’s sometimes clumsy efforts to contain the scandal are similar to BP’s in the Gulf of Mexico — the flow of crude appears contained but the problem is far from over.