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Running with Sarkozy

Kenneth R. Weinstein

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France in May 2007 marked a sea change in French political life. The relatively young and dynamic Sarkozy (52 at the time of his election) captured the lysée Palace as a candidate of change, promising to lead the nation to systemic economic reform through strong, direct engagement and frank talk.

Since assuming office, Sarkozy has significantly modified French foreign policy, heading international opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, expressing strong existential support for Israel, increasing spending on military modernization, and favoring a French return to NATO’s integrated military command.

On the domestic front, he has cut taxes (especially on overtime hours worked) and ended special pensions for public sector employees. Unemployment has dropped to 7.12 percent, the lowest point in the past quarter-century.

Large public sector strikes have, however, forced Sarkozy to scale back numerous reforms. This past week, after a long public debate, the National Assembly, by a two-vote majority, significantly modified, rather than scrapped, France’s decade-old thirty-five hour work week, allowing employers to negotiate individual agreements with employees to increase work hours.

Sarkozy’s domestic reform record would be even more remarkable in France-a country with a long history of interventionism and paternalism-were it not for a personal style that has won him numerous detractors.

Whether of the right or the left, French presidents in the Fifth Republic have assumed the ways of their monarchic predecessors, distancing themselves from policy, leaving details to their prime ministers and governments, while offering rare oracular and pedantic statements on public matters. Rather than keeping such distance, Sarkozy was, until recently, omnipresent, making the kind of policy pronouncements that had been the domain of ministers, and even subcabinet officials. He has been filmed offering the occasional obscenity to those who taunt him in public, sporting Ray-Bans and ill-fitting jogging shorts, answering his cell phone during public events.

Sarkozy’s highly publicized divorce from his second wife, Cécilia-who left him and the lysée Palace for her off-again/on-again boyfriend, now her husband, in New York-and his 80-day whirlwind romance and marriage to supermodel/singer Carla Bruni-known, as she herself admits, for her dalliances with men, reportedly including Mick Jagger and former prime minister Laurent Fabius-has led many to question his psychological stability.

The former president of a key NATO ally, speaking recently at a small Washington lunch, dismissed talk of Sarkozy, noting “one day, Sarkozy gets divorced, the next day, he marries Carla Bruni, and then, the third day he is rejoining NATO.” This perception of instability, however, receded as Bruni’s evident charm won her kudos from the French press, especially during his successful state visit to London in March. (Her favorability in public opinion polls far exceeds her husband’s.) Sarkozy’s approval poll numbers plummeted from nearly 60 percent to 32 percent at the lowest point of his first year in office. (He has rebounded slightly to 35 percent in the most recent L’Express poll.) His wife’s popularity now hovers at above 55 percent. And her new album, released in mid-July, Comme si de rien n’etait (“As if nothing had happened”)-replete with semi-scandalous allusions to past lovers, skyrocketed to the top of the French pop charts.

Sarkozy’s decline in public standing predated his divorce, and a significant factor was the publication of Dawn Dusk or Night by playwright Yasmina Reza, well known to both the Paris and London stages for her avant-garde satires. Sarkozy himself, to the regret of his key advisers, chose to give Reza almost unlimited access during his campaign for the presidency: In meetings with advisers, backstage before and after speeches and television appearances, riding in his limousine and campaign plane, spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with Sarkozy’s family, and late nights out on the campaign trail.

Sarkozy was convinced that his frankness, evident charm, and appeal to left-wing intellectuals-many of whom supported him in 2007-would result in a positive portrait. Merely the fact that he let France’s best-known playwright accompany him on the trail showed that he was no stodgy Gaullist, nor a conventional politician. Sarkozy flirts with Reza, giving her insights he shares seemingly with no one else about his campaign aides, journalists, and other politicians. He seems bemused that she passes utterly unknown in St. Etienne, a French city large enough to have a Division I football club, but is greeted warmly by Tony Blair during Sarkozy’s campaign trip among the French living in London. Dawn Dusk or Night is essentially the Nicolas and Reza Show, a sideshow filled not simply with the banalities of the campaign trail but with deeper discussions about the character of love, mortality, and solitude, interspersed with frank reactions to various campaign events.

The portrait, however, is absolutely devastating, and can only be compared to Joe Klein’s Primary Colors for the impact it has had on public perception of Sarkozy’s personality. Since publication in August 2007, it has sold 100,000 copies and is now available in this somewhat wooden translation by the author herself and Pierre Guglielmina.

Its style, in line with Reza’s post-modernist tendencies, is no Making of the President. Her fleeting impressions of Sarkozy’s interactions with French politicians and journalists are unlikely to be of interest to even the most keen Anglophone observers of French politics. Rather than a campaign chronology suffused with discussion of critical issues, the book is personal, impressionistic, and philosophic.

Reza claims a profound fascination with Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who is far deeper (she lets us know) than those around him. Though she did not know Sarkozy before the campaign, she quickly gains his confidence, and he openly confides in her, not simply about campaign events and personalities but about his existential fears and sexual desires. The result is that Sarkozy, the great seducer who set out to win over the French people, was seduced and outwitted by Yasmina Reza: He gambled that his openness with her would lead to a book that would appreciate his psychological depth. Instead, while Reza recognizes his extraordinary qualities, she is cruel about his shortcomings and failings, especially when compared to another elected official she is romantically involved with, known simply as “G.”

The appeal here is that Dawn Dusk or Night opens the backstage door to what Reza purports is the real reason Sarkozy is running. Rather than the restless drive to transform France, Reza focuses on what she sees as the psychological origins of Sarkozy’s drive, an insatiable self-centeredness, a deep-seated childishness, neuroses (about getting elected, about his weight), restlessness (“inertia is death”), and a deep-seated fear of solitude. Moreover, she furnishes anecdote after anecdote to highlight Sarkozy’s vulgarity: his open flirtation with a younger woman who admits she fantasizes about him at night; his fixation on an ad for a Rolex watch on the front page of Le Figaro which has captured his attention-while he ignores an ominous adjoining story about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Readers familiar with Racine’s portrait of Louis XIV are bound to be disappointed by Reza and Sarkozy. His personality failings may be real, but her witticisms are the stuff of Paris dinner conversations: deep enough to cause smiles or winces, but not deep enough to cause any real reflection about the character of modern France or modern democratic politics.

Nicolas Sarkozy is, undoubtedly, a complex individual, but Yasmina Reza’s portrait is, at best, an extremely incomplete and one-sided portrait of a man of immense longing-whose longings are turned, in short, into the sum of the man. This portrait is also an injustice to someone who is far more complicated than he appears in Dawn Dusk or Night. For the moment, the French seem to have seized on Reza’s portrait as the complete picture, but to do so would be to underestimate Nicolas Sarkozy as leader. The son and grandson of immigrants who rose to France’s presidency on determination, charm, and vision is no ordinary politician. Anyone who has been in his presence senses immediately his instincts, his intense likes and dislikes. This intensity, which sometimes falls hardest on those closest to him, is unlikely to allow him to accept political failure.

Like many of his predecessors, Sarkozy has already begun to reinvent himself, putting the Ray-Bans, the jogging shorts, and cell phone away. His personal life now back in order, by all accounts, he is pursuing his reform agenda through a more distant and regal hold on power. Whatever happens when he faces reelection in four years, one thing is certain: Yasmina Reza will be nowhere near the presidential motorcade.

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