Holiday over for French President Sarkozy

When President Nicolas Sarkozy returns from his Riviera beach vacation this week, it will be a swift return to reality.

Updated: Aug 25, 2010, 11:25 AM IST

Paris: When President Nicolas Sarkozy returns from his Riviera beach vacation this week, it will be a swift return to reality: He will have to answer to criticism about France`s crackd-own on Gypsies, and to street protesters over plans to raise the retirement age.

Sarkozy has spent the traditional August vacation period at the summer home of his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, on the Mediterranean coast, where photographers snapped him sporting a tan and a stubbly beard.

Despite his relaxed demeanor, it`s a tough time for the 55-year-old conservative president, who is three years into his five-year term.

Sarkozy`s approval ratings hover above 30 percent, and one of his top ministers has been caught up in scandals over taxes and party financing. And like many European governments, cash-strapped France is trying to push through unpopular cost-cutting measures — among them, lifting the retirement age to 62 from 60.

Amid all the discontent, a poll published Monday in Liberation newspaper suggested that more than half of the French want to see the left win the 2012 presidential race.

Before his holiday, Sarkozy, a one-time law-and-order interior minister, tried to win back support by returning to terrain where he feels comfortable — security.

Sarkozy linked Gypsies, or Roma, to crime, calling their camps sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution. He pledged that illegal Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated." Up to 88 camps have been emptied since then, and several hundred Roma have been put on flights home to Romania, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Monday.

At home and abroad, criticism has grown, with many arguing that such relentless targeting of a vulnerable minority amounts to racism, and that Sarkozy is pandering to far-right voters and trying to deflect attention away from the economy and other problems. The left has stepped up its attacks.

"I`m ashamed for my country," Socialist European parliament member Vincent Peillon told Le Parisien newspaper this weekend.

Even Pope Benedict XVI appeared to weigh in Sunday with a subtle message about tolerance. Greeting French pilgrims at the papal summer residence, Benedict urged people to accept "legitimate human diversity" and asked parents to "educate your children about universal brotherhood."

Critics have also taken issue with another of Sarkozy`s security proposals: revoking the French citizenship of people of foreign origins who endanger the lives of police officers. That proposal is expected to go before parliament in September, as is the hotly debated plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

Unions are planning street protests for Sept. 7, the same day parliament debates the pension plans. Already, some 800,000 people took to the streets in June to protest it.

Public protests have brought down pension reforms — and governments — in the past. In a bid to keep the government somewhat fresh, Sarkozy is planning a Cabinet shuffle in October, but details are still secret.

Meanwhile, the 2012 presidential election looms, and though Sarkozy has not stated his intentions, it is assumed he will run for a second term.

A telephone poll of 1,003 people carried out last week by the Viavoice agency for Liberation newspaper said 55 percent of respondents want to see the left take the Elysee Palace in 2012. That poll and another published Sunday put Sarkozy`s approval ratings in the mid-30s.

Sarkozy met for lunch with financial ministers last week at a presidential retreat on the Mediterranean, rounding off summer`s final days with an early dose of reality — the announcement of a half-percentage point dip in the 2011 growth forecast to 2 percent.

The president officially returns to work on Wednesday with his first Cabinet meeting and a light schedule that seems designed to burnish his image.

Sarkozy outlines France`s diplomacy in a speech Wednesday to French ambassadors. Thursday he meets France`s national swim team, fresh from its success at the European championships.

Bureau Report