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The French Way of Crisis

PARIS – France is in disarray. According to opinion polls, Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity is at the lowest point seen in decades for a French president. Last week, two ministers resigned, but a parliamentary and media-sustained storm continues, fueled by conflict-of-interest charges against a minister suspected of corruption when raising money for Sarkozy’s presidential campaign.

Some ministers don’t care much about public perceptions when using public funds, and it is clear that the political atmosphere has become poisonous. The atmosphere in parliament is execrable, and may be enough to topple the government in a no-confidence motion. But the constitution established by General Charles de Gaulle is strong, and Sarkozy will keep his position until the end of his mandate in 2012. The main opposition Socialist Party’s weak electoral prospects are also helping Sarkozy.

The size of France’s political crisis seems to be out of proportion with the country’s real situation. To be sure, France has been severely hit by the global financial crisis and economic downturn. But the consequences have been somewhat less dramatic than in many other European countries.

Two of the three Baltic countries and Greece are in deep financial distress. Much the same is true of Portugal, Spain, Hungary, and Iceland. Ireland, Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom are still under threat, owing to large public debts or current-account deficits. But the Netherlands, and Austria – and, to a lesser extent, Germany and France – are faring slightly better.