brief lives September 2005

Waiting for Sarko

Will Nicolas Sarkozy vanquish his mentor Jacques Chirac to become France's first "American" president?

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's most popular politician, is worth watching for at least three reasons. One, he is more likely than anyone else to become the next president of France—an event that would mark a generational and, some dare to think, a philosophical shift in French governance and diplomacy. Two, as president Sarkozy would be the first plausible reformer to dominate France's notoriously closed and static political system since Charles de Gaulle was summoned from retirement to found the Fifth Republic, in 1958. And three, in this allegedly anti-American country Sarkozy would be elected (as early as the spring of 2007) either because of or in spite of the public perception that he is somehow "American."

Sarkozy is the leader of President Jacques Chirac's ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and he recently became minister of the interior for the second time. But his reputation has never been tied to any office or portfolio. "Sarko" is, at fifty, a phenomenon, a peculiar embodiment of naked ambition and blunt talk that seems to appeal to a broad swath of a restless electorate. "He could be our Tony Blair," one of his chief lieutenants helpfully told me, claiming that his boss is the only political figure in France whose name boosts rather than depresses newspaper and magazine sales. I don't doubt it. Last spring Parisian theatergoers flocked to a nightly satirical revue titled En Attendant Sarko (Waiting for Sarko), a Beckett-inflected cultural sign that the coming of Sarkozy is all but inevitable. The run was extended.

François Hollande, his Socialist Party counterpart and possible future rival for the presidency, once remarked, "Sarkozy is convinced that politics is a matter of libido. He wants to seduce." I watched Sarkozy in action last spring as he and Chirac campaigned unsuccessfully to win French voters' support for the European constitution, and I could easily see why he attracts people and fascinates even those who are not attracted.

The Napoleon-size Sarkozy jerks his arms and shoulders and head to punctuate his rat-a-tat spiels. His heavy brows dance above bloodhound eyes and a vaguely menacing grin. There is something Nixonian in Sarkozy's mien, something Nixonian too in his personal leitmotif of adversity overcome, of an outsider's lifelong fight to win respect from derisive elites by working twice as hard. ("Nothing was ever given to me; I fought for everything I have" is an irrepressible couplet in Sarko's patter.) Sarkozy has a twitchy, all-elbows manner, and no one would call him warm or easygoing. But unlike Nixon, he is not palpably insecure.

"Where do we get off looking down our noses at countries that have half the unemployment rate we do?" he said matter-of-factly to an audience of students at the Dauphine campus of the University of Paris in May. "Don't we have an interest in looking for models elsewhere? We don't know how to do everything. Voilà. I've said it. We might have something to learn."

The students burst into hurrahs. "I said it," Sarkozy pressed on through the clamor, "and if I say it, it is because I believe it profoundly. A little benchmarking, as you say here at Dauphine, wouldn't hurt."

You have to know the bad juju that attaches to any such talk outside the private sector in France to understand how radical Sarkozy can sound. When he proposes "positive discrimination" (that's French for affirmative action) to boost the chances of France's huge—and by U.S. standards socially immobile—Muslim population, it is recognizably American talk. When he mocks the worst excesses of the French state, often in acid terms no other politician would dare employ—"The thirty-five-hour [work week] is unique to France; no one is going to steal the idea"—it is pounced on as "liberalisme." "Anglo-Saxon" free-marketism, American style, is still a fearsome ideology in many quarters of France. Rather than run from the label, Sarkozy embraces it: "Liberalism means pluralism. Anyone here want to go back to the days of only one kind of store with only one brand of product?" That there never were such days in France doesn't really matter.

Sarko's supposed American-ness is about style as much as substance, of course. It consists in direct, often sharp discourse; a transparency about his own political hustle; and an eagerness for media exposure. All these were evident in the spontaneous quip to a television interviewer last year that now stands as the opening of his overt presidential quest. Sarkozy was asked if while shaving in the morning he sometimes thought of the presidency. "Not just when I'm shaving," he shot back. Such disarming candor, however "American," appealed to French voters accustomed to the oblique sonorities of the French political class and its obsequious deference to the chief of state, whom Sarkozy was openly challenging.

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Charles Trueheart, a former correspondent for The Washington Post, is a writer in Paris.

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