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Sarkozy leaves the stage
May 8, 2012 - The Associated Press
PARIS -- When Nicolas Sarkozy bounded up the steps of France's presidential palace in jogging shorts and shoes on his first day in office five years ago, many French instantly sensed they were in for something new.
In a country where King Louis XIV's phrase "L'Etat, c'est moi" -- "I am the state" -- resonated for later heads of state, the message from Sarkozy was clear: Tradition-bound France needed a self-image makeover.
His idea of change wasn't exactly what many French had in mind.
Sarkozy's meticulously built political career all but collapsed Sunday, after he lost to Francois Hollande, an unassuming and bespectacled Socialist, in France's presidential run-off. Sarkozy becomes the first French one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost his re-election bid in 1981.
Sarkozy's inauguration-day jog, which conveyed youthful vigor, ultimately epitomized what many French came to see as jejune, self-centered antics unbefitting of a president at a time when economic troubles and persistently high joblessness were on most minds.
"I take full responsibility for this defeat," he said after the results came out Sunday night.
Some political brethren grumbled that Sarkozy should have officially jumped into his re-election race earlier, instead of clinging to his mantle as head of state until February. Other pundits suggested that less controversial conservatives such as Prime Minister Francois Fillon or Foreign Minister Alain Juppe would have had a better shot at beating Hollande than Sarkozy did.
A frank-speaking, energetic and media-savvy former interior minister, Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 over Segolene Royal -- Hollande's former partner, and mother of his four children -- with an unlikely campaign built on promises of "rupture" from the policies of Jacques Chirac, his fellow conservative and former mentor.
It was personal style, many pollsters said, that largely did in Sarkozy. After his 2007 victory speech on Place de la Concorde, Sarkozy sped over to one of the ritziest restaurants on the Champs-Elysees to celebrate; then he jetted off to the yacht of a tycoon friend in the Mediterranean. Critics pounced on the showiness.
A lackluster economy and his inability to make good on his 2007 race promises to shrink persistently high joblessness didn't help. In the fourth quarter of 2011, France's unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent. In January, S&P downgraded France's state debt rating from its top tier, delivering a blow to his image as financial-manager-in-chief.
Sarkozy sought to cast himself as powerless: On the 2012 campaign trail, he repeatedly pointed to Europe's financial crisis -- in places like Italy and Greece - that endangered the euro zone. He sought to cast himself as a "ship captain whose boat was in a full storm."
In many ways, Sarkozy was an anomaly as France's president.
He had a foreign-sounding surname. He didn't attend the most elite French university for public servants. He seemed to relish in chucking out the regal niceties of the presidency. His off-the-cuff remarks, like calling a somewhat belligerent passer-by at a Paris farm fair "a poor jerk," got him in trouble.
Sarkozy reportedly once said he'd foreseen himself more as a prime minister - whose job is the day-to-day running of the government, requiring a lot of energy - than head of state, whose traditional role is about statecraft.
But backed by a strong majority of his conservative UMP party in the National Assembly, and by force of personality, Sarkozy commandeered the reins of power. His prime minister, Francois Fillon, was seen as his executor. In his first year in office, Sarkozy's team rammed through changes like a cap on income taxes for the wealthiest, seen by critics as a sop to the uber-rich friends who backed his candidacy and were in his inner circle from his years as mayor of the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Other reforms came hard, in the face of protest.
Sarkozy's team wrote into law minimum-service requirements during France's often-crippling labor strikes. It raised the retirement age to 62, from 60, in the face of protests. It pushed through complex reforms to cut costs in a creaky university system, and students protested in the streets by the thousands.
He reduced payroll taxes on overtime pay, and cut the bureaucracy by refusing to replace one of every two retiring state workers.
In the history books, Sarkozy's impact may well be more notable for what he accomplished abroad than at home: Under France's presidency of the European Union in 2008, he mediated between Russia and Georgia during their brief war; the following year, he replaced France in NATO's integrated command after a 43-year absence.