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.

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.