Sarkozy's TV Appearance Paves Way for New Image

French President Nicolas Sarkozy went on prime-time television to try to improve his image. One year since taking office, Sarkozy is the most unpopular French leader since the end of World War II. He answered wide-ranging questions from journalists and vowed to press ahead with reforms.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was just last spring that Nicolas Sarkozy stormed the French presidency with a mandate for change. Now he's the most unpopular French leader since the end of World War II. So he decided to take some hard questions on national television last night to try to fix his image. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Standing behind the counter at his Paris newspaper kiosk just hours before Sarkozy's primetime appearance, Gilles Martinez(ph) says he thinks the president is arrogant and abrasive, and beyond that…

Mr. GILLES MARTINEZ (Newspaper Kiosk Owner): (Through translator) I don't think he's able to control his emotions, and physically, he doesn't even look like a president. When you compare it to Mitterrand, it's a joke.

BEARDSLEY: Martinez pulls out popular daily newspaper Le Parisien to show the most recent poll, which gives Sarkozy a 28 percent approval rating. And in the paper's popularity contest of post-war presidents, Sarkozy comes in last.

Retiree Christian Gougall(ph) walks up to buy a news magazine. Gougall says he doesn't regret voting for Sarkozy, but he thinks it's a good thing the president's going on television to try to explain things.

Mr. CHRISTIAN GOUGALL: (Through translator) It's true we don't really see where he's going, and then there's this showoff bling-bling side. We're not really used to having a president like that at all. He's not exactly the de Gaulle type.

BEARDSLEY: The constant news coverage of Sarkozy's flashy personal life, his divorce, courtship and remarriage to a top fashion model was too much for many French people. There was talk that Sarkozy was unpresidential, that he had besmirched the office. One newspaper called him vulgar. These attacks have had an affect on Sarkozy, says political analyst Ann Elizabeth Moutay(ph).

Ms. ANN ELIZABETH MOUTAY (Political Analyst): He is somebody who can take criticism. He doesn't like it, but he has heard it. And therefore, we see less of his wife. We don't see him on holiday. And if people do not like his style, he's decided, well, I can change my style.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy took the airwaves last night to try to turn the tide of public opinion. In a nearly two-hour grilling by five journalists, the president defended his vision of France and the world, and he admitted that he had alienated people.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) I'm trying to correct my mistakes. Of course, I have made some. I see the disconcertment and I'm trying to learn my lessons from it. But I know where I am going, and there is no other strategy because at the end of my five-year term, I will be able to say to the French people, voila, this is what I did during the five years you gave me.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy also said he couldn't fix the problems of 30 years in a few months, and that the subprime crisis and rise of oil prices and the Euro were aggravating economic factors beyond his control. Analyst Moutay thinks Sarkozy can turn things around. His biggest mistake, she says, were giving French people the impression his reforms would have instant results and thinking he had to be open about everything.

Ms. MOUTAY: I think the French do not like, actually, transparency. And they say, oh, we don't want anybody to lie to us, but, actually, they do. And you tell them, but, you know, Mitterrand had mistresses and he took them on holiday. But he was (speaks in foreign language) about it, which means, you know, he was lying to us about it and this was fine. Whereas Sarkozy shows it, and therefore this is not fine at all.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy's performance last night is getting plaudits from analysts who say he has successfully paved the way for a new beginning. And perhaps most importantly, they say he came off looking presidential.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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