On a recent cover, weekly French newsmagazine Le Point featured a photo of a confounded- looking President Nicolas Sarkozy in a heavy rainstorm with a headline that read what's happening to him? Both the image and the question captured Sarkozy's transformation from a leader who could do no wrong to one whose every move seems to incite opposition or controversy even among allies. Many of the French President's woes exist because voters are confused about what he stands for. His decisions seem to contradict each other, they complain, and his policies are often ideologically schizophrenic. "For the first two years of his presidency, Sarkozy convinced French public opinion that all he had to do was announce reform for it to be as good as done that his word and desired results were one and the same," says Denis Muzet, president of Médiascopie, a public-opinion research institute in Paris. "Since last January, however, people have not only begun complaining it's all gesticulation with little real result, but that the reforms themselves are clashing in nature, illegible in content, and often harmful in what they achieve. They see no ideological coherence ... in Sarkozy's reform or leadership."
Which means that the more salient question might actually be: Who is Nicolas Sarkozy? The answer depends on when you study him. Is he the man elected President in May 2007, who immediately set out to lower income taxes, scrap France's 35-hour workweek, revoke special retirement privileges for public-transport workers, and harangue employees to "work more to earn more"? Or is he the leader who in the past year has slapped down greedy bankers, fumed at U.S. and British resistance to French plans for strict new regulations of the global finance sector, and preached the gospel of "moralizing capitalism"? Is he the man, a son of a Hungarian immigrant, who, newly elected, challenged French pretense of color-blind égalité by arguing for American-style affirmative action? Or is he the leader who, facing critical regional elections next March, has begun openly courting voters of the extreme-right National Front with a crackdown on illegal aliens and a divisive national debate on immigration and French identity?
All politicians contradict themselves, of course. It's almost impossible to remain perfectly consistent and ideologically pure under the watchful gaze of the media especially in an age when conflicting statements are just a click on YouTube away. But Sarkozy's slipperiness is notable because his political success has been built around his reputation as a straight talker and someone who acts rather than bloviates. Now many voters and even some of his former allies are questioning the President they thought they knew. "This is classic Sarkozy: claiming [that] adaptable principles and a willingness to take any stand likely to reinforce his own political interests are in fact proof of pragmatism and openness to all views," says a former adviser to conservative politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Zero conviction and fidelity except to himself."
Take international affairs. During the first year of his presidency, Sarkozy's frosty relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel led him to downgrade the Franco-German relationship that has traditionally been central to French policy in Europe and instead cultivate closer ties with the U.K. But in April, ahead of the G-20 summit in London, the French leader rushed back to Merkel on the issue of tougher international regulation of financial markets, and has since encouraged a tighter relationship with Berlin. Last week, Sarkozy even started a public fight with British Chancellor Alistair Darling by bragging that the appointment of a French official to oversee E.U. regulation of financial markets was both a "victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism," and a chance to "clamp down on the City [London's financial hub]" a threat Darling described as "self-defeating" and "a recipe for confusion."
Sarkozy's early idolization of U.S. President Barack Obama has likewise given way to bitter disappointment over the American's slow, consensual method of reform and his refusal to return Sarkozy's public displays of affection. There's also the pesky issue of human rights. Sarkozy pledged to place human rights at the top of his list of requirements for diplomatic partners before he was elected but that quickly gave way to an embrace of leaders like Muammar Gaddafi from Libya and Bashar al-Assad from Syria, state trips to pal around with African dictators, and a congratulatory call to Vladimir Putin after his party's December 2007 success in legislative elections marred by accusations of corruption. "What a strange conception of international affairs when you'd criticize someone for his election victory, and the next day ask him to help you solve the crisis with Iran, with Darfur, and lower tensions in the world," Sarkozy told a January 2008 press conference when challenged on the call. "You consider it normal that I'd insult Mr. Putin by saying his victory was illegitimate, then ask the same illegitimate Putin to help solve the world's problems?"
Well, no. But less than a year before, Sarkozy had come to power arguing that principles matter. The irrepressible "hyper-President" has also long said he judges people (and expects to be judged) exclusively on merit and results. But in October he supported his inexperienced 23-year-old son Jean's bid to take over the public body responsible for managing Paris's multibillion dollar La Défense finance district. To make matters worse, even as the accusations of nepotism grew louder, Sarkozy père described his reforms of France's high school system as guaranteeing that "henceforth, what's necessary to succeed in France isn't being born well, but to have worked hard and proven oneself through studies and accomplishment." "The scandal over Jean Sarkozy was a very personalized example of the way many of Sarkozy's actions are not only displeasing the public, but particularly alienating his base of conservative voters who no longer feel he's defending their values or political interest," says Jean-Marc Lech, co-president of the Ipsos polling group, which puts the President's approval rating at just 39%, down from more than 60% when he was first elected. "His biggest slump has come among conservatives seeing aspects of that activity they don't want any part of with some now complaining 'this wasn't the kind of leadership I voted for.' "