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Sarkozy’s plummeting popularity

Sarkozy (and his party) get clobbered in regional elections, and many blame the president’s poor political judgment. Airlines fear bankruptcy as travelers get stranded by volcanic ash. Plus: Cannes without cameras?

Top News: We all had a hunch that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s honeymoon with the French was over - but now the polls have confirmed it.  The regional election held on March 14 and 21, 2010 gave the French a chance to express their frustration at their president.

Sarkozy’s right-wing party, the UMP, conceded 21 out of 22 French metropolitan regions to the left-wing alliance, composed of the Socialist Party and Europe Ecologie, a pro-environment party created only two years ago.

Now, most political analysts agree that it is not so much a victory for the left party alliance than a rejection of Sarkozy’s policy and style.

“Although the elections are meant to be about regional issues,” read a BBC News article, “other factors like high unemployment and resentment over plans to reform the judicial and pension systems have prompted many French people to use the ballot to punish the government.”

A list of clumsy decisions and awkward situations seem to have angered the French. On top of them is the decision to name the president’s 23-year old son and not yet graduated from college, Jean Sarkozy, at the helm of the country’s main business center, l’EPAD in La Defense. That move was in stark contradiction with Sarkozy’s promise of promoting meritocracy, and it prompted accusations of nepotism.

Public outrage forced l’EPAD to call out the decision, but as French people said: “le mal était fait” — the damage was already done.

Another one of Sarkozy’s major faux pas was his decision not to inaugurate the annual farmer’s fair in March. This made a lot of people feel like the president lost touch with them and reinforced the contrast between Sarkozy and former and now beloved President Chirac. Indeed, Chirac was very keen on inaugurating the fair. He took it as a chance  to reconnect with the rural population, shake hands and pose in front of enormous cows. This earned him the reputation of being the best at  “tater le cul des vaches” or “touching cow butts.” Check out this hilarious video of Sarkozy at the farmer’s fair in 2008, essentially telling a visitor to “(expletive) off” — the clip became an instantaneous internet sensation.

Sarkozy’s popularity also suffered among his base from his predilection for appointing left-wing personalities at key positions, such as Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.

There is also a sense that the French president talks a lot, but hasn’t done much. Sarkozy may have appeared to have reinvented France’s right-wing party — by adopting American-friendly stances on many key issues such as NATO and Iran — but is now criticized domestically for not being presidential enough, and for being too "bling-bling."

His popularity is at a record-low level, while the prime minister's approval rating is on the rise. As a result, Sarkozy’s may not run for reelection in 2012; previously his candidacy was seen as a near-certainty. Sarkozy said in a CBS interview that he will announce his decision by the Fall of 2011.

Money: Like most of Northern Europe, France has been afflicted by airport closures after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano in Iceland. At the time of writing, all flights to and from Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Aiport had been cancelled.

The result: thousands of visitors stranded in France, near the Charles De Gaulle Airport, two gymnasiums have been set aside to welcome stranded passengers, and an estimated 150,000 French have been forced to stay abroad, according to French daily Le Figaro.

France 24 has this report about French nationals stuck in New Delhi — some of them reportedly running out of prescription medication — teaming up to find a way to return home. 

This ash cloud comes at a very bad time for France. The Easter vacations have just started and the SNCF, or French National Railway Network, have decided to go on strike. Authorities have tried to find alternative solutions for travelers, such as diverting planes to smaller airports like Nantes, Pau and Toulouse which are currently not affected by the ash cloud.

Threatened financially, European airlines companies are pressuring governments to ease the flying restrictions, reports French daily Le Monde.

Airlines argue that the governments have been excessively cautious, that at certain altitudes planes could still fly without danger. Travel agencies and tour operators also fear dramatic economic consequences if the ban persists. Some of these agencies urged the government to help them, otherwise they will go bankrupt.

But not everyone is unhappy about the flying ban. Residents in the vicinity of the Charles De Gaulle Airport seemed to have enjoyed a quiet weekend for once, as French daily Le Parisien reports. “I can hear the birds chirping,” a resident said to Le Parisien, “it’s marvelous.”

Elsewhere: The world-famous Cannes Film Festival held in the South of France in mid-May is usually a time for media frenzy, outrageous partying and glitzy shots of celebrities on the red carpet. But this year, part of the public may not have access to their favorite celebrity coverage.

The Festival has decided to restrict video coverage by press agencies. They will only be allowed a certain amount of time of filming at the red carpet and during press conferences. This is a consequence of an exclusivity deal clinched by the TV channel Canal Plus and the pay-TV service Orange.

Outraged by this decision, major television news agencies — APTN, Reuters TV and AFP TV —  said they may boycott the Festival altogether. As the French news website Rue 89 put it, the Festival is now wavering between notoriety and money.

Let’s hope the agencies manage to find an agreement, otherwise the voluptuous Scarlett Johanssons and sexy Jude Laws ma y have to strut the red carpet with hardly any cameras around. What a waste!