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.