brief lives September 2005

Waiting for Sarko

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

The American label also sticks to Sarkozy because of family values—that is, the value he has placed on his family as a political tool. His high-powered wife, Cecilia (they have grown children from first marriages and a young son together), has increased in influence in Sarkozy's inner circle. In a country where private life is normally offstage, the three Sarkozys have posed for full-color "at home with" spreads in Paris-Match. So there was a whiff of comeuppance in the air in May when Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged rumors that he and Cecilia were having marital difficulties. But the story vanished quickly. No French person I spoke to thinks even a divorce would make a real difference to Sarkozy's political fortunes, or should. Political life is still far from being American here.

Asked about the "American" label, Sarkozy told an interviewer for Le Monde, "Je m'en fous. I am part of a political class that is paralyzed by the prospect of risk. As for me, I think that in France anti-Americanism applies to only a fraction of the elite. Do you know a lot of young people who don't want to go to the USA?" But Sarkozy couldn't resist the toggle from boldness to pettiness that is also his wont: "I don't have childhood memories [of the United States], never went to summer camp in the U.S., any more than I went to American universities. In short, I'm less of an American than someone else, if you know what I mean." In case you don't, he means Jacques Chirac, who as a young man half a century ago took university classes in the United States and worked at a HoJo's.

This is one key to the Sarko phenomenon: the two men, political bedfellows and all-too-similar political animals, detest each other. The struggle between the aging monarch and the hungry usurper, the most interesting drama in French politics today, is about to enter its final act.

Jacques Chirac, a shrewd pol who spent a lifetime maneuvering for the presidency he finally won in 1995, has always nurtured the hope of being elected to a third term when his second one expires, in 2007 (the year he turns seventy-five). But that fine dream was destroyed in May, most analysts believe, when French referendum voters rejected the proposed European constitution that Chirac had championed. Sarkozy—a confirmed European like almost everyone else in power here, right or left—also campaigned hard for a yes on the constitution, yet the 55 percent non vote was read chiefly as a slap at Chirac and his failure to rescue France from its persistent economic morass.

It was Chirac himself who put Sarkozy in the public spotlight thirty years ago, when the prime minister, as he was at the time, granted the twenty-year-old nobody "five minutes" in which to address a Gaullist party congress. Sarkozy blithely ignored the limit and spoke for twenty, bringing the hall to its feet when he declared, "To be a young Gaullist is to be a revolutionary!" Chirac adopted him as a protégé, promoted his fortunes, even took him into his home, where he soon became a close friend to Claude Chirac, the daughter who has since become the president's most trusted political adviser.

The middle son of a bourgeois Hungarian immigrant in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, Sarkozy built his political base in the genteel nearby suburb of Neuilly, where he was elected mayor at the age of twenty-eight, and has been its deputy in parliament nearly ever since. His reputation as a man of action crystallized one day in 1993, when a crazed would-be bomber took control of a municipal day-care center in Neuilly. Mayor Sarkozy rushed to the scene and walked into the center. He spent forty-six hours talking down the self-styled "Human Bomb," comforting the teacher and her young charges, negotiating freedom for fifteen of them, and then successfully waiting out the hostage-taker, who was ultimately overcome by fatigue and then shot and killed by the police. By the end of the standoff everyone in France had heard of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then came the presidential election of 1995, and Sarkozy's now notorious fall from grace. When polls showed Prime Minister Edouard Balladur beating Chirac, Sarkozy abandoned his political godfather and became Balladur's man. But Balladur imploded, and Chirac, in one of his mind-boggling comebacks, won the election, leaving Sarkozy to cross a vast political desert. No one in Chirac's family spoke to him for years afterward. When Chirac's party returned to parliamentary power in 2002, after five years out of power, Sarkozy was brought back into the government as minister of the interior—but only because of the political support he had mustered on his own, which Chirac could not do without. Chirac was being pragmatic, not forgiving.

Sarkozy relished the Interior Ministry, center stage for the great social debates of the day in France—on crime, immigration, religious freedom. He put more police officers on the streets and lowered crime rates. He pushed for tough penalties on anti-Semitic acts. He opened dialogue with imams to create what he calls "an Islam of France, not an Islam in France."

Having burnished his credentials as a social healer and an interlocutor for Muslims, Sarkozy—opposing Chirac—could safely come out against admitting Turkey to the European Union, a position in tune with that of the French majority. He also enraged Chirac by taking well-publicized trips to Washington, Beijing, Jerusalem, and elsewhere on Interior Ministry business.

After a cabinet reshuffle in 2004 Sarkozy became the minister of economy and finance. His tenure was just long enough to buff his résumé but too brief for a record; in eight months he showed himself a reflexive interventionist and a reformist privatizer.

Like Godot, Sarko is what you want him to be, and there are plenty who are skeptical that he is any different, or holds any different convictions, from the rest of the French political class. By French standards he is a man of the right, which would place him on the middle-left in the United States. Where Chirac is an ardent Gaullist, Sarkozy is described as an "Atlanticist." He talks a modestly free-market line and is often savage about the cuckooland of French labor law and even the sorry state of the French work ethic. These views may explain why, according to the rumor mills here, Sarkozy is beloved of the Bush administration—the kiss of death, of course, for a French politician.

But because he is the most popular politician of the right, and well-organized besides, the party rank and file in 2004 turned to Finance Minister Sarkozy as their next leader. Chirac, miffed that his preference had been overridden, ineptly insisted that Sarkozy could either run the party or serve as a cabinet minister, but not both. Sarkozy chose the party, and with it the machinery necessary to mount his presidential campaign. "It was built for Chirac, and now it's completely in Sarkozy's hands," the Sarkozy lieutenant marveled to me. Then, after the referendum drubbing in May, a suddenly needy Chirac persuaded Sarkozy to return to a supersized Interior Ministry—and straight-facedly waived the previous year's rule by letting him keep the presidency of the UMP.

President Chirac once publicly reprimanded the overweening Sarkozy on national television: "I give the orders, and he executes them." With every passing day that statement is coming to seem an admission of impotence against this unusual force of nature.

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

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