Books June 2008

Un Homme in Full

A blinkered and besotted account of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign succumbs to the erotic entanglements of biography.
Photo by Jean Pierre Amet/Belombra/Corbis

Looking over the headlines at a news kiosk in Paris this spring was like examining an array of autopsy reports and clinical case studies. “The Man With the Bags Under His Eyes” read Le Point, a right-wing weekly that might normally be presumed to bolster France’s right-wing president. Nicolas Sarkozy’s visage stared out sadly from behind the magazine’s block letters. The newspaper Libération didn’t even bother with a head shot; its cover simply sported a black silhouette to suggest a missing person: “French Seeking President,” it announced ominously. The page-one editorial was titled “Pathology.” “When one judges a head of state, one generally asks, ‘Is he a good president or a bad president?’” it began. “In the case of [Sarkozy,] one must ask, ‘Is he a president?’”

Sarkozy’s career, for the past several months, has been in a dizzying downward spiral. Every fresh magazine cover in la belle France, every weekly and every tabloid, seems to offer new evidence of his destruction. Even though—as many a Frenchman will tell you—he runs them all. Or at least his friends do. Arnaud Lagardère, a witness at Sarkozy’s second marriage, owns Paris Match; another pal, Serge Dassault, presides over Le Figaro; longtime associate Martin Bouygues heads up the television channel TF1; and Vincent Bolloré—the notorious billionaire who outraged the country by lending Sarkozy a yacht for two and a half days after his year of presidential campaigning—controls Matin Plus.

But with friends like these, you don’t need enemies. “The Meltdown of Nicolas Sarkozy,” flashes yet another headline. “Should he resign?” puzzle the commentators. Many say yes. Sarkozy’s approval ratings have plummeted to the 30th percentile. Sarcophobia has entered the French language and is here to stay. So has the acronym TSSTout Sauf Sarkozy (“Anything But Sarkozy”).

What happened? How did this man—elected with an imposing margin over his attractive Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, less than a year ago—sink so low so fast? He hasn’t drawn corruption charges, as did his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. He hasn’t started wars. He hasn’t made even a dent in the economy. In fact, he hasn’t had time to do much of anything yet. His problem is one of style, not substance.

As the newly translated book about him by the famous French playwright Yasmina Reza suggests, Sarkozy is a man at war with French niceties. He’s a plainspoken tough who dispenses insults more easily than he absorbs them, wishes to save France from apathy and irrelevance, suffers from an acute case of restless legs syndrome, and, in the end, possesses a heart of gold.

Reza followed Sarkozy for almost a year of presidential campaigning in 2006–2007, and she continually reprimands him for, of all things, his obsession with love. In a 30-page speech to the youth of France, he says “amour” 53 times, Reza laments. What’s with this guy? Reza is an intellectual, a skeptic. Her literary works (among them the international theater triumph Art) teem with ironic asides and tragic heroes. Indeed, Sarkozy is the first nontragic hero to merit Reza’s attention in some time, she confessed to a reporter after the publication of Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy. She tries, in many ways, to turn him into a tragic hero. When he tells her, “Love is the only thing that matters” and “I can only love a landscape if I’m in it with someone I love,” she mocks his naïveté. “A formula so vain,” she sighs.

She hints broadly at his disappointment in private life. There is something to this disappointment. While Reza was writing Dawn, Sarkozy was campaigning alone—his second wife, Cécilia, with whom he had officially reconciled after she’d left him to cohabit with a New York millionaire for several months, was conspicuously absent from his side and never found the time to vote for him in the final election. He was incessantly checking his cell phone for news from her. In fact, one of the book’s most poignant moments comes when Reza describes Sarkozy, alone in a train compartment, opening and shutting his mobile phone: “I see him turning on his cell phone, turning it off, never going any further than the home page … [his youngest son’s] face appearing and disappearing dozens of times.” He never makes a call; he only waits for one.

Reza accurately captures the vulnerability of this man, so infamous for arrogance, for bravado. Early on in her meetings with him, she notices that he has a slight limp. She notices that he is hardly taller than the 10-year-old son of a firefighter being honored on the anniversary of September 11. The president strikes her as a little boy. “When I tell his entourage that he looks like a child, I get stunned stares,” she notes.

Sarkozy is indeed an arresting mix of strength and weakness. At times he seems very much the hero, the strongman, the larger-than-life action figure. He raised eyebrows throughout France in 1993 when, as mayor of the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, he burst into a school held by a gunman and emerged carrying a young hostage in his arms. No other politician in recent history has risked his skin the way Sarkozy does. At other times, it is his frailty that attracts attention: his hair-trigger temper, his vulnerability to Cécilia, his physical tics.

I, too, noticed his limp when I arranged to join him—Reza-style—on a day trip to an apprentice-training outfit in the east of France where he hoped to promote a new Gallic work ethic. Arriving with a cavalry of handlers, he resembled a child star on a sitcom. For all his conscious swagger and broad, thrown-back shoulders, he wore soles several centimeters high. His voice, when he answered journalists’ questions, was almost preternaturally soft.

This was a man who only two weeks earlier had raised a furor in France for calling a farmworker a “poor slob” when he yelled “Keep your dirty hands off me!” as Sarkozy greeted supporters at an agricultural event. How unpresidential, raged the critics. Never mind that Sarkozy hadn’t skipped a beat or broken his smile. Jacques Chirac, it was pointed out, had been similarly accosted once: “Asshole,” a man yelled at him. Chirac stretched out his hand in greeting: “And my name,” he said graciously, “is Chirac.” That, many decided after years of reviling Chirac, was class. Sarkozy was a boor.

I had expected someone more aggressive. Standing half a meter from Sarkozy, I had to strain to hear him. The words he spoke were forceful: France, he declared, had come to punish its citizens for working. The brightest minds expended their talent figuring out how to do as little as possible. The state had to stop providing so many handouts and start creating more jobs. Yet even as I listened to Sarkozy speak, he reminded me of a mime—not only because of his quiet manner, but because of his expressive face. Sarkozy’s mouth is huge, his eyebrows thick and dark, as though splashed on with an oversize brush. His smile and frown are theatrical.The thick-soled shoes make his feet look big. There is something clownish, something Marcel Marceau–like, something cartoonish but, at the same time, imposing about the man.

To be loved, a man must have in his face something to pity and something to admire, says Stendhal. It is probably hard to spend a whole year writing about a public figure—a figure whose schedule becomes your schedule, whose movements become your movements, whose successes become your successes—without falling a little bit in love with him, and Reza hints (both in her book and elsewhere) that this is exactly what happened to her.

In many ways, her narrative reads like a long-running tale of foreplay. Reza is pulsingly alive to Sarkozy’s moods, his foibles, his ambiguities. Few observers of Sarkozy have been more finely attuned to his outbreaks of megalomania and anger, to his one-on-one combat with the angel of time. Reza perceives his restlessness with the attention of a woman enamored; she notices his nervous movements, his impatience with people’s questions and reports, his fear of letting life slip through his fingers. “They brutally tell you it’s too early [to act],” Sarkozy tells her at one juncture. But “then, no less brutally, they tell you it’s too late. The advice always adds up to: not right now.” Rather than miss the right moment, Sarkozy barely shuts an eye. He plunges into every fray. He is in perpetual motion. As a result, he sometimes resembles “a fox terrier running everywhere, barking.” Other times, he evokes Macbeth—edgy, driven, tortured, noble.

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Cristina Nehring lives in Paris. Her book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century, will be published by HarperCollins early next year.

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