- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

PARIS — Backers of President Nicolas Sarkozy are hoping his secretive weekend marriage to model and singer Carla Bruni will enable the conservative leader to turn his attention back to affairs of state and help stop a precipitous drop in the polls.

But a survey to be published today — conducted before and after the wedding — only confirms the downward trend. The poll puts Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity rating at 41 percent, down 13 points in one month.

“The French were clearly fed up by these images of exotic holidays, yachts and private jets, a president who seemed elsewhere, obsessed by his ‘Carlita,’ ” wrote France’s daily Parisien newspaper, referring to the new first lady.

“Now that she is first lady … the Sarkozy camp hopes her hero can get fully back to work.”

Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Bruni married in a small, private ceremony in the presidential Elysee Palace, with the press learning of the event only afterward. In that, the president made good on his vow at a January press conference that the press would be the last to know.

But the public romance that preceded the wedding has done serious political damage to Mr. Sarkozy, who previously coasted on his image as an iconoclast in a system in which tradition matters.

Inaugurated in May, the French leader has boasted of a “rupture” from the past on issues ranging from trans-Atlantic ties to the worker-pampered economy to relations with France’s former African colonies.

In October, Mr. Sarkozy set the trend in matters of the heart as well, becoming the first French president to divorce in office after his second wife, Cecilia, left him. Mr. Sarkozy is the second French president to marry in office: Gaston Doumergue tied the knot at the Elysee Palace in 1931.

The romance with Mrs. Bruni — whom he reportedly met at a party just weeks after his divorce — was a financial boon for the French and foreign press that trailed the pair from Disneyland Paris to Egypt’s Sinai, even as it appeared to be driving down Mr. Sarkozy’s ratings.

Two polls found that while the majority of French feel Mr. Sarkozy’s private life is his own affair, 48 percent think he has overexposed it.

“That he’s divorced, that he has a new girlfriend doesn’t bother the French. But the fact that the president publicizes his private life too much has cut him off from his base, which sees too much of separation between the life he lives and their difficult daily lives,” said Frederic Dabi, an analyst at the IFOP polling agency in Paris.

Other factors are contributing to Mr. Sarkozy’s sinking ratings. The French economy is sputtering and the French fret about their vanishing purchasing power — worries exacerbated by the subprime mortgage crisis and U.S. recession fears that have sent world stock markets tumbling.

Analysts also note a perception that the president announces one new policy after another but appears incapable of delivering.

“Sarkozy made a decision six months ago to be on the front lines of political activity,” said Olivier Rozenberg, a political analyst at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

“Past French presidents left it up to their prime ministers to make the unpopular decisions. But Sarkozy decided that was a hypocritical way of doing politics. And in the end, he is as unpopular as his prime minister, [Francois Fillon], maybe more.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s high-profile romance with Mrs. Bruni contrasts sharply with the behavior of previous French presidents, whose real and suspected affairs were rarely, if ever, mentioned in the press.

The only question ever posed publicly to President Francois Mitterrand about his longtime mistress and illegitimate daughter earned the sharp response: “Et alors?” or “So?”

By contrast, Mr. Sarkozy’s private life has dominated the French press for months. Besides the barrels of ink spent on Mrs. Bruni, no fewer than three books have been published on former wife Cecilia, including one describing the president as a “skinflint” who “loves nobody, not even his children.”

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