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.

But Reza’s tale also acquires an airless quality, a narrative claustrophobia. One senses that she is waiting, rapt, for Sarkozy to make a move on her. Their circular conversations about love; their stagey disagreements; their implicit superiority over surrounding journalists and administrators and colleagues. Reza’s frustration—that her subject never, in fact, makes his move—becomes the frustration of the book. Tirelessly, she drops hints that she is engaged in a sexual waltz with the man who will be president: she, the great writer, he the great politician—two Übermenschen in a state of attraction.

Warned by her artsy friends not to meddle with political men because “they are stronger than us,” she responds archly, flirtatiously: “I don’t believe [Sarkozy] is stronger than I.” A photo taken of Reza and Sarkozy shows her, arms akimbo, bosom thrust toward his chin, staring him felinely in the face. He smiles at her like a gentleman chagrined, flattered, compromised.

In a particularly maddening scene toward the end of the book, Sarkozy has just won the presidential election and Reza has announced with mysterious abruptness that she will cease to follow him. He summons her to his new office in the Élysée. “I could say, Why did you want to see me, but I don’t say it. He could say, Why do you want to stop [accompanying me], but he doesn’t say it. What for? We know the answers,” she says coyly, “and any kind of explanation would be demeaning.” The new leader and the longtime celebrity contemplate each other in charged silence. They contrive small talk. It is tense. But it is also—and this is the problem with much of the book—essentially dull.

Just as the reader is about to scream with exasperation, comes the coup de théâtre. Sarkozy stands up. He moves across the room. We can feel Reza’s heart stop. And then he picks up … a table. He picks up a small table by the window and carries it to the other side of the room. He sets it down next to the wall. And that’s it. He sits back down again.

“That’s crazy what you just did,” Reza says, after a beat. “You think so?” asks the president.

It’s as close to a declaration of love as Reza gets in this book. And since such a declaration is so clearly the main point of the whole exercise, its absence makes for a memoir that is irksome, desk-pounding, futile-feeling.

It also makes for a memoir that is unfair. For Reza ends up slightly bitter about her resistant subject. “Did he attempt to seduce you?” a brazen French reporter asked her after the book’s publication in Paris. “No,” she said. And then: “Come to think of it, it is almost insulting to spend a year with a man without his even trying to seduce you.” Ironic? We are probably supposed to think so. But in irony lies truth—especially for a writer like Yasmina Reza. “Were you attracted to him?” pursued the reporter. After complimenting her interlocutor on the “audacity” of the question (thus admitting that he was on the right track), Reza told a lie as bold as it was pompous:

“I would like to respond to that question impersonally,” she said. Sarkozy “is one of those men who … are very desirous … [but who] were one day forced to stop diversifying [this desire].” It is “a form of desiccation,” she explained: “Beings who once possessed the capacity to move life in many different directions become one-tracked.” In other words, where Sarkozy once would have allowed his life force to spill into the seduction of Yasmina Reza, he has now truncated it so violently that it suffices only, alas, to “seduce France.”

Really? Is this the man she needled for nearly 200 pages about his fullblooded faith in love; the man who, it should be mentioned, himself wrote a memoir, in 2006, Testimony, whose most-cited passages are declarations of passion for Cécilia? This man is now incapable of “diversifying” his “desire”? In Reza’s offended soul, he has become a political machine, a windup toy that buzzes off into political Neverland without so much as pausing over the flowers on the way.

If Reza is a flower, Sarkozy may in fact have resisted alighting upon her petals. But to blame this on his defects of character rather than on, for example, his loyalty (however unreciprocated) to his wife—or indeed on his indifference to Reza—seems to signal a fundamental dishonesty and vindictiveness on Reza’s part.

“Anyway, you’ll reinvent him,” said a friend of Reza’s upon hearing that she would be writing about Sarkozy. And so she has. She has captured certain aspects of him in glinting detail; others she has altered, darkened, and altogether misunderstood.

Whatever else this hurried, harried president is, he is large; he contains multitudes. He can divorce a woman he begged endlessly to take him back and then marry someone else three months later with apparent—and convincing—devotion. He can tell a man at an agricultural salon to “get lost, poor slob” and on the next occasion be as gentle as a dove. He can want badly to reform France—to shake up its citizenry and sound a clarion call to work—and believe that love (not industry) makes the world go round. He can remind the French of the Americans and the Americans of the French: he can jog like Rocky and flirt like Alfred de Musset. (Recall: he first met Cécilia when—as mayor of Neuilly—he presided over her marriage to another man.)

The last thing this man is is narrow or “desiccated.” Or predictable. Despite his current trials, his detractors are holding their breath. I talked in March with a spokesman for Paris’s left-wing mayor, Bertrand Delanoë—himself a presidential hopeful for 2012. It was the middle of the “meltdown” phase of media coverage of Sarkozy. “Don’t bury him yet,” my friend said. “He is like Lazarus. If people are disappointed in him, it is first and foremost because he raised such high expectations.”

Sarkozy struck people as a man of his word. Whereas other candidates for public office make their promises with a certain perfunctoriness, Sarkozy looked his electors in the eye: “Everything I have spoken, I will perform,” he said fiercely. “I will scrupulously adhere to my promises and to my word.”

In many ways, he has done just that. Even leftist media watchdogs dedicated to charting his downfall admit it. Rue89, a Web site that vowed to monitor the new president for the five years of his term and demonstrate how easily he forgot his oaths, has, it seems, thrown in the towel. Its “Sarkoscope” registers that after a few months in office, Sarkozy has successfully instituted (or is in the midst of instituting) eight of the 10 specific policy reforms he had announced on the campaign trail.

From simplification of the European Union’s clunky internal procedures and mandatory penalities for repeat criminal offenders to overhauls of the country’s 35-hour work week (henceforth, French employees can work overtime without being punished for it), Sarkozy has delivered what he promised. The operators of the Sarkoscope can resume their day jobs.

Still. The president didn’t just make a beeline for target statistics. He also, and more importantly, “diversified his desire.” He dove ardently into education reform (dispatching a 30-odd-page tract to surprised school authorities), into the urgency of religious respect, into the rights of crime victims, into debates about the Shoah. He made rousing speeches about France’s need for “rupture” with its past. As he told audiences toward the end of last year:

I still remember some of my friends trembling … because I used the word rupture. ‘It’s a mistake,’ they said to me. Change would be better. In other words, the smell of rupture without the rupture. But I do not fear the word rupture—rupture with habits of thought, with ideas, with behaviors of the past that have prevented us from advancing, from grasping the future between our two arms … I want rupture with intellectual conformity … I want rupture with halfheartedness, I want rupture with conservatism, I want rupture with immobility. This rupture I believe necessary. This rupture I have betrothed myself to. This rupture the French people have approved. This rupture I will perform.

Even as he hailed political rupture, Sarkozy confronted personal rupture: he ended one marriage and celebrated another. It took him no more than three months.

He still has four years to change the country he adores, the country his Hungarian father folded fast into his heart. So the poor slob at the farming event oughtn’t write him off just yet. Nor should the European media, the next American president, or the previous French one. Neither, finally, should the acclaimed playwright who followed him. Yasmina Reza may not think Nicolas Sarkozy is stronger than she is. But guess what, Ms. Reza: he is.

Presented by

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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