Jean-Louis Thiébault – Presidents without popularity: the cases of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, France

French presidents are elected by direct universal suffrage. Universal suffrage gives them a strong democratic legitimacy they need to govern. But the last two French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012- …) experienced a rapid decline in their popularity just after their election. The fall was therefore premature. It lasted almost until the end of the presidential term. Faced with rising discontent, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have adopted different strategies to win back their popularity: the first has tended to make his less flamboyant presidency; the second to get out of his initial posture of “normal president”.

The level of popularity of the new president had always been particularly high in the aftermath of the presidential election. It is the “state of grace”. But it is used to denote the moment of political life during which public opinion of a country is largely favorable to a new president who comes to power after an election. Journalists also often speak of the “100 days” as a privileged period for a new elected president (Duhamel and Parodi, 1982). The essential feature of the latest presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, is the steady decline in their popularity, more or less rapidly after their election. In july 2007, a total of 65% were satisfied, what made of Nicolas Sarkozy the most popular president after taking office, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle. Nicolas Sarkozy failed to convert its electoral victory in presidential popularity. Elected with 53,06% of the vote, his popularity as president quickly became less important. The “state of grace” was consumed within six months. With 55% approval rating for his first month in office, François Hollande underperformed all presidents, with the exception of Jacques Chirac in 2002 (51%). But this high level of popularity did not last. In May 2008 and 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. From September 2009 to January 2010, the approval rating of the president remained below 30%. The year 2010 was characterized the reactivation of themes on security. But these issues have failed to mobilize public opinion. The end of 2010 was marked by a major rupture. Seduction has deteriorated. Political leaders and communicators can not maintain a media activism for several years (Neveu, 2012).

The evolution of the popularity of Hollande struck by its starting point, particularly low for a president who has been elected. With 55% of approval rating for his first month in office, he was worse than many of the other presidents. He was in a unique situation at the beginning of the term (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015). Six months after he took office, 35% of French people had confidence in François Hollande and 61% do not trust him. Discredit that struck the president was the result of a feeling of absence, or even of stagnation, during the summer of 2012, and dissonances in the government team. All this has contributed to what François Holland, with 35% of confidence, was the weakest president after six months in office. Francois Hollande also known soon a decline in public opinion. In September  and november 2014, his approval rating was 13%. It was the worst approval rating of a president. He faced even a strong sense of disappointment in his own electorate.

The purpose of this second part is to explain the reasons for the continuity of the declining popularity of the two presidents and especially the inability they found to remedy. The means used to regain a certain level of popularity failed. The key to this unpopularity lies not only in the crisis of results of economic and social policies, particularly on the employment front. It is also the result of a divorce between the president and much of its social base that is the real explanation of this strong presidential unpopularity.

The economic factors

The main structural factor of rapid weakening of the popularity curve of the two presidents was the weakness of the French economy, with social consequences in terms of unemployment, budget deficit and public debt. Upon assuming office, the last two presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande faced the consequences of the great economic and financial crisis that began in summer 2008 and which has particularly affected the US but many countries Europe such as France. This is Nicolas Sarkozy who faced the first onslaught of the crisis and has implemented actions to prevent the impact on the French economy. At the end of 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy has focused all its energy trying to limit the spread of the crisis to the whole financial and economic system. This activism on the national and international scene allowed him to stem the precipitous decline of its popularity curve. The management of the crisis during the EU presidency by France allowed him to regain 8 points in some months (41% in January 2009). Yet in early 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. The 2010 year was a year of social depression and distrust. For the first time since his election, his situation was delicate.

François Hollande faced also a strong sense of disappointment in public opinion. His disgrace was the result of mass unemployment, debt explosion, loss of competitiveness, a costly social protection system. He hoped to stabilize the unemployment curve. But to really reduce unemployment implied a growth which remained uncertain. Public deficits remained heavily excessive.

The political factors

Nicolas Sarkozy has quickly abandoned the idea of a rupture with the government style of Jacques Chirac, that he never ceased to invoke and which had contributed greatly to his success. Very quickly after the election, the word of rupture disappeared. The president did everything, decided everything. He was all over at the front line. He has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising power. From the first weeks of investiture of the new president, the new practices were evident. Formulas have been found to summarize the new exercise of power : “hyperpresidency” (Gordon, 2007), “omnipresidency”, “ultra-presidentialism”. It is this new exercise of presidential power, which has led to criticism. With Nicolas Sarkozy, the domination of the president reached a previously unknown intensity. The first months in office have given to see a real domestication of the prime minister. The choice of ministers was always essentially dictated by the president. The organization of the executive was marked by an impressive number of presidential speeches, announcing the launch of a given reform, a sending of several letters of mission, often not countersigned by the prime minister, to committees of ad hoc experts, the creation of a sort of parallel presidential government (Le Divellec, 2012).

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the highly publicized government style of his predecessor. Shortly after the beginning of the presidency, the one who wanted to differentiate itself from Nicolas Sarkozy has indeed failed. His behavior embodied the non-rupture with the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. In the first sixth month of his term, The unpopularity of François Hollande is due to the multiplication of errors, communication blunders, malfunctions and signs of amateurism. The new president had no experience of exercise of power. The explanation for this early unpopularity was often given as being that of a “hollow victory” of the president. He would have won against the demands of the country. The punishment for the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would have weighed stronger than the rallying around the socialist candidate, François Hollande, and his program. A more plausible explanation is that as the “state of grace”, that lasts roughly the first hundred days of presidency, is not primarily due to a rally to the winner, to the fact that voters and the media would give a blank check to the candidate nominated by the ballot box. The “state of grace” is also mainly due to the attitude of the opposition. The losing party usually abandon the political battlefield, at least for a time, the outcome of the polls being both the selection of a new president and rejection of the personality, the program and the party of the opponent. But in 2012, right-wing opposition has not remained sluggish (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

The unpopularity of the president is not a new phenomenon. It results from excessive expectations that voters have vis-à-vis their president. The origin of these expectations is to look in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, increasingly unsuited to the reality of political life. The main electoral event, the presidential election, opposes candidates who have to believe they can, alone, start the economy, increase the influence of France in the world, combat social inequalities and fight against insecurity. Therefore, victory is priced at basically ambitious and unrealistic campaign promises. And this is unlikely to change, as the goal of the election is to elect a man (or a woman), able to find only solutions to all the problems of France (Grossman, 2014).

Personal factors

Personal factors are related to the behavior of the new president. But in this period of “state of grace”, the president may be led to commit his early mistakes that may have political repercussions, even if it is private business of the president. Thus Nicolas Sarkozy made several mistakes of behavior in the first days after his election, because he was looking for greater transparency of his way of life and his private life. François Hollande wanted to adopt a behavior more suited to the traditional conception of the presidency. But it has experienced rapid setbacks. Abuse of transparency and privacy explains the speed of the collapse of the popularity of the two presidents. For many analysts, Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopularity was almost all the result of his behavioral style. The same type of judgment was brought for his successor. The unpopularity of François Hollande seems to be reduced in his way to embody the presidential office. Once elected, he appeared out of step with the weight of the office and the gravity of the situation of the country, too peaceful, too conciliatory, too careful or too timid to impose an undisputed leadership.

The international political factors

The predecessors had found in world affairs an autonomy from a domestic politics increasingly constrained. Faced with the growing impotence of the executive, beset by difficulties, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande sought in international relations and defense policy a tranquility that failed to tranlate in the polls. Neither the international crisis caused by Georgia in the 2008 summer, or the financial and economic crisis in the fall of 2008 that Nicolas Sarkozy faced, seriously reversed the inexorable process of decrease of presidential popularity. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy was characterized by an omnipresence and hyperactivity. Foreign policy under the 5th Republic was always part of the “reserved area” to the president. But the concept has been pushed much further during the Sarkozy presidency. External relations have for four years been decided by the president himself. Personalization has been a key feature of this foreign policy. The foreign ministers were sidelined and forced to make up figuration (Meunier, 2012).

In January 2013, François Hollande decided to intervene militarily in Mali. François Hollande triggered the war for the first time during his term. According to the constitution, the president is the head of the military. It is the president who decides to project the military, and him alone. The rapid deterioration of the situation led the president to intervene. He understood all the political benefit there was to settle the more sustainably as possible in the position of military chief. After his first overseas operation, Francois Hollande has made halting a while, on the ground of French politics, his irresistible erosion in the polls, which resumed a few weeks later. He did not succeed in reversing his image, structurally in deficit in the eyes of French voters (Revault Allonnes, 2015; Boisbouvier, 2015).

In August 2013, eight months after Mali, the president was about to unleash a new war in Syria. François Hollande decided to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the massacre with chemical weapons perpetrated on August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus. The red line that Barack Obama had fixed has been crossed. France was determined to hit Syria. But Barack Obama invoked the trauma of the recent interventions of the American military in Afghanistan and Irak, and the weight of the Congress to justify the need to quickly seek the vote of the latter. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to explain that he had not the slightest intention, for its part, to consult the French parliament. He stated that he had no reason to forego the opportunities offered him by the institutions of the 5th Republic. Due to US dropping, the Syrian crisis has resulted in a major setback for French presidency (Revault Allonnes, 2015a).

The impact of the attacks

In January 2015, after the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, there was a recovery in the popularity of François Hollande. The president had plunged with a popularity of 13% in September 2014. It was the lowest level. In December 2014, he goes back only to 15%. In January 2015, he rebounded to 20%. But this surge did not withstand the test of time. In June 2015, six months after the attacks, his popularity remains still at 19%. It has reconstituted only some part of his popularity. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the president and his ministers have made number of ads on urban  and education policies. But these tendencies lasted a few weeks at most. If the political balance of power was clearly less unfavorable, at least for a time, the president has not used it to launch major public policy projects. From the first hours of the post-11 January, it is mainly in the field of anti-terrorism, in all its facets, that was the replica of the executive (Revault Allonnes, 2015).

To regain a certain level of popularity, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have used a new communications policy, a new institutional practice, and a rollback of certain public policies.

A new communication policy

The two presidents have taken some measures to regain their popularity, especially the type of communication policy. Indeed, just installed in the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy has saturated the media space. He was regarded as a professional, with a strong ability to exploit the media. Moreover, Nicolas Sarkozy was surrounded by a strong communication team. The resources of the president also held the possibilities of influence at its disposal on a range of media, whose owners were close to him. These resources were serving the deployment of a strategy of intense activism, linking media events and announcements of reforms, so that the president had ever the initiation. It was a saturation and permanent campaign strategy (Neveu, 2012).

Early in his term, Sarkozy strongly rejected the theories of Jacques Pilhan on the need to adopt a more reserved attitude in communication (Le Débat, 1995). However, the 2011 year was marked by the return of the influence of the former adviser to François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who died in 1998 (Bazin, 2009). After four years of exercising power, facing a heavily degraded image in public opinion and trying to conquer again an electorate disappointed by his behavior, Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to make a spectacular change. This strategic shift was imposed on him more than he really wanted. But he had no choice.

François Hollande refused to have an open communication policy (Pingaud, 2013). He wanted to stand out from its predecessor. He wished, in particular through the concept of “normal president”, to give up the temptation of the permanent spectacle of his predecessor. Uncomfortable with the television tool, Hollande has adopted a dated style of communication, therefore so inefficient. He decided therefore to adopt a more open attitude to communication under the influence of a new communication team with Gaspard Gantzer. Arriving at the Elysee Palace in April 2014, he is responsible for leading all presidential communications, for coordinating it after two years and half of difficulties with that of the prime minister, for advising the president on his activities and for working to “strategic management of his public speech” (Revault Allonnes, 2015b)

A new institutional practice

At the beginning of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising presidential power, the so-called “hyperpresidency”. During the years 2010 and 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to review thoroughly his model of presidential power. These years were marked by a slight decrease in intensity of the presidential domination. This new practice was a tactic to correct a degraded popularity. The concept of « re-presidentialization» took the place of that of “hyperpresidency”. This term is used by the communication team to show that the president was now all concentrated entirely on his role as president. He gave the impression of wanting to take care of the the essential. Now the president no longer wished to be distracted by the turmoil of media or small events. The objective was clear: to erase the traces of the first years of the five-year period. This new option was associated with an organizational change. Sarkozy decided not to receive the leaders of his party (UMP) every Monday as he was accustomed. The “re-presidentialization” required him to take the height and to be no longer involved in affairs of the majority party. But Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval rating was in the fall of 2010 at around 25% did not change the prime minister, François Fillon. A presidential mandate is structured around two elections. In the first part of the mandate, the new majority seeks to fulfill the promises of the candidate, and in the second it must value the work of the president. With a new prime minister, it is a new perspective with a new tone and new decisions. A change of prime minister in the 5th Republic started always a new dynamic.

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the « hyperpresidential » style of his predecessor. He has changed the prime minister. The electoral defeat of the 2014 municipal elections gave the final blow to the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. François Hollande appointed Manuel Valls as the new prime minister. The idea to give a little space for maneuver and movement structured his choice. The change of prime minister appeared as a way to recapitalize a deficit of public opinion. With Manuel Valls as prime minister, Francois Hollande made the choice to appoint a popular personality while the level of popularity of the president was at a very low level. It is clear that the arrival of Manuel Valls did not change the rule of a public opinion in permanent hostility, or prevent the continued fall of François Hollande in public opinion. He even reached in September 2014 the lowest level ever measured for a president (13%) (Lecerf, 2015). The change of prime minister has not convinced. In fact, the popularity of the prime minister has no more value electorally speaking. Apparently, voters well integrated the institutional rule,  implied by five-year term: the president is at the center of the game and the prime minister is not the fuse he was before 2002 (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

 The reversal of some public policies

The best example to explain the reversal of some public policies by Nicolas Sarkozy is furnished by fiscal policies  To rebuild its image over time and regain the favor of the electorate, Nicolas Sarkozy did not hesitate to revisit some decisions made at the beginning of his five-year term, as the tax shield. The tax shield was a key measure, maxing out at 50% of revenue payments to the state by taxpayers under the income tax. On the contrary, tax increases were decided by François Hollande in 2012 and early 2013, which had the effect of increasing the tax burden in 2014. In September 2013, he announced the end of the tax increases. This call for a tax break appeared as a turn to the one which he had announced during his campaign that he would reform tax in France. His intervention was expected after a 2013 summer where discontent against tax increases has been steadily gaining momentum, while blurring settled on the government’s ambitions in this area. The government was to find 6 billion of new taxes to balance the budget, but the finance minister had publicly expressed concern in mid-August 2013, a “tax ras-le-bol” in French. François Hollande acknowledged that in the fall of 2012, given the scale of deficits, an extra effort was requested to taxpayers. He thought it was time to make a tax break.

Conclusion. The downward trend in the popularity of presidents

The unpopularity of presidents has become an habit. One may wonder whether a president can long remain popular face heavy elements that make up the economic and social landscape of France in times of crisis: an unemployment rate of 10%, a decreasing growth, aggravated deficits and debt abysmal. This unpopularity of presidents characterizes a period during which threats strength the anxiety of French people and illustrates the difficulties of governments to curb the course of the economic and social crisis. Structural dissatisfaction seems to have set in French people towards their leaders. Since 2002, none of the presidents have been able to achieve a sustainable relationship of trust with the French voters. A component of this unpopularity notes the difficulty of leaders to address the main concerns of their citizens. This situation is analyzed in terms of another factor. Since the first oil crisis in 1973, there have always been more French people saying that in France, things “tend to go worse” than French people saying they “are improving.” Since 2000, it is common to have more than 80% of French people concerned about the evolution of their country. The unpopularity of the leaders cannot be dissociated from this growing pessimism of citizens. Something new has been added in 2012 to this pessimism. Usually, the election or even the re-election of a president was accompanied by a burst of confidence. This was the case in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory then caused a surge of optimism. The negative judgment have focused on another form of breakdown, the loss of illusions by public opinion on the expected benefits of alternation. The lack of enthusiasm for Francois Hollande is also a lasting consequence of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Given the growing interdependence of France vis-à-vis its European partners, the promises of presidents quickly prove unsustainable. Indeed, the French president can neither revive growth by itself or reform the international finance and, even less, the European treaties. Disappointment is then up to the ambition of the promises. For twenty years now, presidents have a significant popularity at the beginning of their mandate, but this popularity plummets rapidly. Above all, contrary to what may have happened to previous presidents, the last two presidents do not rely and they remain weak. But the institutions are still solid (Grossman, 2014)

References

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