Over the past few weeks, Nicolas Sarkozy’s political rhetoric has changed as abruptly as his love life.

Having divorced his second wife Cécilia in October, Mr Sarkozy has been parading Carla Bruni, the willowy Italian-born fashion model, as the latest love of his life. France’s glossy magazines were in ecstasy at the year-end as they published photo-spreads of the romantic couple cuddling in Disneyland, splashing in the sea in Egypt, and strolling through the tourist sites in Jordan – conveniently washing away the lingering images of Muammer Gaddafi’s five-day visit to Paris, which had appalled human rights groups as well as some of Mr Sarkozy’s own government ministers.

But in a speech on New Year’s Eve Mr Sarkozy also aroused the interest of the Parisian political class, which tends to disdain the ostentatious displays of the president’s private life, by talking about a “policy of civilisation” for 2008. At a press conference on Tuesday in which Mr Sarkozy hinted he would soon marry Ms Bruni (pictured right), Mr Sarkozy outlined his new-found political philosophy stressing human values, social dialogue, the quality of life, and the environment – the very issues that Ségolène Royal, his Socialist opponent, claimed as her own during the election campaign.

In both style and – perhaps – in substance it seems that the Mr Sarkozy who has bounded into 2008 is a different creature from the hard-edged economic reformer who was elected in 2007. Is this simply because Mr Sarkozy realises that his early electoral promises are unrealisable in a deteriorating economic context and is creating fresh distractions? (“Sarkozy promised the moon, but we’ll only get a honeymoon!” as Le Canard Enchâiné, the satirical newspaper, put it.) Or has Mr Sarkozy sensed a real shift in the public mood, particularly on green issues, and is he genuinely changing his political priorities? In short, is Sarko turning into Ségo?

Throughout the presidential election campaign and during his first seven months in office, Mr Sarkozy’s message had been clear: as president he would boost consumer spending power by cutting taxes, liberate the country’s entrepreneurial energies by reforming the labour laws, re-energise the economy by rewarding hard work, and thereby restore France’s grandeur in the world. “Work more to earn more,” was his unsentimental mantra.

The French president promptly introduced a €10bn ($15bn, £7bn) fiscal stimulus package and launched a series of reforms to curtail the privileged pensions regimes enjoyed by many public sector workers, to overhaul rigid labour market rules and to grant more autonomy to universities.

But Mr Sarkozy’s reforms, which are still largely in the process of being negotiated and implemented, have already encountered stiff – if sporadic – resistance from workers and students. The economic backdrop has also deteriorated thanks to the subprime credit crisis in the US, the surge in commodity prices and France’s weakening export performance resulting from the sharp appreciation of the euro.

Mr Sarkozy’s approval ratings have been chasing the consumer sentiment indices down and now stand at below 50 per cent for the first time in his presidency. BNP Paribas forecasts that France’s gross domestic product will grow by about 1.5 per cent this year compared with 1.9 per cent in 2007. “The king is now naked,” Mathieu Kaiser, one of the French bank’s economists, concluded in a much-cited report.

In his press conference on Tuesday, Mr Sarkozy appeared to be grabbing for new clothes. He backed away from earlier promises to boost consumer spending power. “What do you expect of me? That I empty the coffers that are already empty?” he asked. “To reduce the French political debate to the single question of purchasing power is absurd.”

Instead, Mr Sarkozy outlined his own sweeping vision for a “policy of civilisation”. The term, invented by Edgar Morin, an eminent leftwing sociologist, suggests that countries sometimes have to re-weave their social fabric when they are ripped apart by great economic, technological or social revolutions. So, for example, Mr Sarkozy said that France had to recreate its intellectual certainties, institutions and modes of life during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and after the murderous crisis of European civilisation in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr Sarkozy said that the modern world was experiencing a similar revolution after being turned upside down by technological change and globalisation. Mr Morin had argued that today’s imperatives should be to promote solidarity, morality and a sense of identity. “These objectives I will make mine,” Mr Sarkozy said, promising to overhaul public policy in the fields of education, healthcare, social protection, sustainable development and town planning.

To help promote French civilisation and identity at home and abroad, the president also announced a “real cultural revolution” in public broadcasting. He promised to fund a public broadcaster, similar to the BBC, by raising a levy on the advertising revenues of private television stations and “an infinitesimal tax” on mobile telephone operators and internet service providers.

Advertising on public broadcasters would be scrapped, he said, prompting a sharp rise in the share prices of the two main private broadcasters, M6 and TF1, the latter part-owned by Martin Bouygues, a close friend of Mr Sarkozy. “I do not want to say that public television should be elitist or boring but that it should not function solely according to purely mercantile criteria,” the president said.

To emphasise the importance of “another type of growth” in France, Mr Sarkozy announced that he had asked two Nobel prize-winning economists, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, to recommend ways of measuring qualitative improvements in the economy to supplement traditional quantitative yardsticks. “If we remain prisoners of a restrictive vision of GDP then we cannot hope to change our behaviour and our ways of thinking,” he said.

Some observers, including Mr Morin himself, are sceptical about Mr Sarkozy’s sudden conversion. “In today’s situation, I think he is trapped by his circumstances and by all his quantitative promises that he cannot realise,” Mr Morin said in a radio debate. “But I do not exclude a conversion. If he has used the phrase ‘policy of civilisation’ it is because he has felt there is a vacuum in politics. It is intuitive.”

Although Mr Sarkozy may have changed the tone of his discourse, he has certainly not abandoned his previous message. The president insisted that France should not blame the outside world for its current economic woes, adding that they only reinforced the need for structural reforms. Indeed, Mr Sarkozy threw more red meat to free-market liberals by suggesting he would this year scrap the contentious 35-working week introduced by a previous Socialist government.

The president also provided some examples of how his free-market and socially-oriented agendas could be aligned. One example was Mr Sarkozy’s proposal to offer extra tax breaks to small companies to set up profit-share schemes that could benefit millions of workers, thereby splitting profits more fairly between capital and labour.

Mr Kaiser, the BNP Paribas economist, says that although Mr Sarkozy is experiencing some economic turbulence he is unlikely to turn away from his original goals. “People are not seeing short-term results. But this is quite normal and to be expected. You cannot change an economy with structural problems in six months and we knew that the French economy was slowing down,” he says. “But reforms are under way as far as pensions and the labour market are concerned. And further reforms are also planned in the goods and services markets. He has done what he could in the short term and the focus is now on long-term reforms.”

Mr Kaiser suggests that some elements of Mr Sarkozy’s “policy of civilisation” could enhance France’s economic performance: for example, a significant improvement in the country’s educational system could encourage greater innovation.

Henri Guaino, the president’s political strategist and speechwriter, who is believed to have imported Mr Morin’s thinking into the Elysée palace, says that Mr Sarkozy is sticking to his welfare and labour-market reform agenda and his promise to increase the purchasing power of French consumers.

“Increasing purchasing power remains one of his goals and it is one of the ways of restoring France’s confidence in itself,” Mr Guaino says. “But it is not the only goal and the president cannot simply declare it into existence from one day to the next.”

According to Mr Guaino, Mr Sarkozy is simply setting his economic reforms within the broader context of his “policy of civilisation”. “We are going to be even more ambitious with a more wide-ranging agenda of change,” he says.

Mr Guaino insists that this is a step forwards rather than backwards, dismissing suggestions that the “policy of civilisation” is nostalgia for a bygone age of close-knit communities and higher moral standards. “If modern society has no conviviality, no humanity and no attachment to its past, then we need to do away with modernity,” he says.

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