February 13, 2012

Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.

Like all tragic heroes and most recent French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy confronts only one truly dangerous opponent in seeking reelection. Sarkozy’s most implacable foe in the balloting that begins in 10 weeks is himself.

“Sarko the American,” as he is nicknamed here, must overcome his early years of failing to govern France effectively amid endless gossip about a very public divorce and glitzy remarriage. Moreover, his impulsive personality and fascination with celebrity and fortune have deeply antagonized French voters, many of whom tell pollsters they will never vote for President Bling-Bling (another local appellation).

Polls show him trailing by double digits his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande — whose chief promise is to be “a normal president.” So Sarkozy now relies on two assets that normally are not decisive in French elections: campaign help from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a record of activism in foreign affairs anchored in significantly improving French-American relations.

Politics in Paris today is a case of deja vu all over again, but in reverse.

In 1974, the French (to no avail) urged Americans to overlook Richard Nixon’s Watergate misdeeds and to concentrate instead on foreign policy successes such as the opening to China and Middle East peace talks (even though those talks were really the handiwork of the late, lamented and lamentable Anwar Sadat).

Things came full circle in Paris the other day as I found myself nodding when Foreign Minister Alain Juppe argued that “Sarkozy’s strong performance on the international stage should be an asset for him” in the coming campaign. If Americans overlook Sarkozy’s lackluster domestic record, they certainly have reasons to want him reelected.

Juppe’s list matched mine: Sarkozy’s hard-charging interventions in Libya and the Russian-Georgian conflict; his decision to reinvigorate the NATO military command; and his dogged quest for a global response to the financial crisis through the Group of 20 forum. Such leadership came from no other European leader — especially not the super-cautious Merkel, who plays the plodding tortoise to Sarkozy’s Bugs Bunny version of a hare.

In fact, Bugs may be an appropriate leadership model for these bilious, frenetic times when politicians have to jump from one debilitating, reputation-grinding crisis to another. Sarkozy has the nerve for that, and perhaps it helps to get the tortoise to make that point for him.

Temperamental opposites, Merkel and Sarkozy were openly antagonistic after he was elected in 2007. But that was before the Greek debt crisis destabilized the currency their countries share. They now provide political cover for each other in moving circuitously but steadily toward a level of economic coordination that he wanted yesterday and that she wanted never.

They have bought time and prepared markets and governments to wait calmly this week as the Greeks and their creditors grapple with one more short-term bailout plan that they hope will stave off an immediate default and Greece’s probable exit from the euro zone.

Sarkozy will argue that France needs Europe, thus France needs him, when he officially announces his candidacy, which could happen as early as Wednesday. Merkel has agreed to visit France and join him in campaigning. He has also triggered my slack-jawed amazement by calling on the French to embrace the German economic model of labor reforms to achieve productivity gains.

“There is some risk involved” in this Hail Mary pass, Juppe acknowledged. “For historic reasons, many in France still fear Germany.” But together, Sarkozy and Merkel have forged a viable rescue package for the euro and European Union institutions, and voters can be persuaded to keep that partnership going, Juppe concluded.

“President Sarkozy understood that the only solution was a stronger strategic relationship with Germany,” added Bruno Le Maire, Sarkozy’s agriculture minister and at 40 a rising star among French conservatives. Le Maire, a strong proponent of a German-French alliance, admitted that he has not yet succeeded in convincing the Sarkozy team to take a second essential step toward reelection.

“We have to recognize that we have made some mistakes, to show a sense of humility,” Le Maire said. An apology might overcome the feeling among many voters that Sarkozy has neglected or disrespected them. The president is reluctant to admit specific error, one campaign insider said, for personal and tactical reasons.

Sarkozy demonstrated in 2007 that he is a fierce and skilled campaigner. He will pull out all the stops in the initial voting on April 22 that leads to a runoff on May 6. But to win, he will have to make voters forget a flawed performance at home — something Richard Nixon could not pull off almost four decades ago and that has gotten no easier since.