Nicolas Sarkozy was elected based on the conception that he was different from his predecessors. During his campaign, he built his brand as the simple guy (an immigrant’s son without a patrician elite education) who would change things around (an overhaul of the welfare state which he sees as financially unsustainable, unfair and discourages work).
But on Sunday, March 16, the French voters sent a clear message that they were not impressed with M. le President. Sarkozy’s UMP party lost local-government elections in several major cities, trailing behind the Socialist party.
The main reason is the increasingly pessimistic attitude towards Sarkozy’s government policies aimed at boosting purchasing power as the global economy grinds slower.
At the same time, his lifestyle came under attack as well - indiscrete and bordering on ostentatious. Apart from his recent (and very public) divorce from wife Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, followed by marrying former Italian model-turned-singer Carla Bruni within 4 months, Sarkozy vacationed on a billionaire friend's yacht, jogs wearing Ralph Lauren and a $14,000 Rolex.
His obvious enjoyment of the Good Life got him the nickname "President Bling-Bling".
His current image is in sharp contrast to his election brand as the man-of-the-people.
According to Denis Muzet, founder of the Paris-based politics-and-media institute Médiascopie, the French find it hard to accept Mr. Sarkozy's flashy lifestyle as they are feeling economically pinched. In January, inflation in France reached a 16-year high of 2.8%. A CSA poll last month showed that 56% of French people thought that Mr. Sarkozy "badly represents the role of the president," an 11-percentage-point increase from January 2008.
Sarkozy decided to "re-presidentialise" himself by toning down public displays of his lifestyle. During state visits, he tries to present an image of “elegance and decorum” – sans Rolex watch and Ray-Ban sunglasses.
He learned from past mistakes when he was giving interviews while jogging and using his Blackberry during an audience with the Pope.
For his rebranding he reshuffled his communications team. He started by firing his official spokesman David Martinon (a protégé of his former wife Cecilia).
Martinon will be replaced by a trio made up of Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant (secretary general of the Elysee); Jean-David Levitte (advisor for international issues) and longtime aide Franck Louvrier (who is in favor of daily communications with the press, instead of weekly press briefings).
Sarkozy also recruited Nicolas Princen, a 24-year old "cyber spin doctor" to detect and counter Internet attacks and rumors against the French President. Princen will keep a keen eye on websites, chat groups, blogs and film clips -with good reason. A handful of clips released on video sites like YouTube or Dailymotion badly tarnished Sarkozy’s image in recent months.
The first one of Sarkozy being seemingly drunk at a press conference at a G8 summit in 2007 was watched over 10 million times on YouTube. His famous remark to a man who refused to shake his hand at the Agricultural Fair in Paris in February 2008 was caught on amateur tape and watched over 3 million times in less than one month.
Will Sarkozy be able to rebrand himself? Will he be the patrician, discrete president the French want, implementing amazing new ideas?
If so, he could be one of the best presidents France ever had.
He made a great start with the appointment of this communication team and the toning down of his image.
But may be Riss, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo and co-author of "La Face Karchee de Sarkozy" by Philippe Cohen, Richard Malka and Riss, is on the mark with his observation “he will never change. Whether it rains or it storms he can’t change. It’s beyond him.”