The Magazine

The Man Who Would Be
le Président

Nicolas Sarkozy wants to wake up France.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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One thing Sarkozy does not resemble in the slightest is a traditional French politician. "I am a man of the right," he says over breakfast, "even if I'm not a conservative in the traditional sense." This is an extraordinary admission. No presidential hopeful in decades, even in the UMP created by Jacques Chirac in the wake of De Gaulle's RPR, has ever accepted the label. Never in his political life has Jacques Chirac made a similar statement. From his time as prime minister in the mid-seventies, when he described his goal as the creation of "a labor movement à la française," to his recent New Year's address, in which he again attacked American-style capitalism, Chirac has taken many positions, but none of them on the "right." Since Sarkozy's profession leaves him liable to accusations in the French press that he is the favored candidate of Americans or free-marketeers, he is anxious to spell out exactly what he means by a "temperament of the right." It is something he has obviously thought about a lot. "First, the primacy of work; second, the need to compensate personal merit and effort; third, respect for the rules, and for authority; fourth, the belief that democracy does not mean weakness; fifth, values; sixth, . . . I'm persuaded that, before sharing, you have to create wealth. I don't like egalitarianism."

Out of this value system come plans for everything. Between stints at the interior ministry, Sarkozy also spent time as minister of finance. He intends to shrink the state, reform the profligate, bureaucratic, and job-killing "French social model," cut taxes, promote ethnic harmony (through the controversial expedient of affirmative action), normalize Islam in French society, and shore up France's alliance with the United States. These plans amount to what supporters and detractors call la rupture. As Sarkozy told a roomful of journalists at UMP headquarters in January: "You can't run France on the ideas of 30 years ago." This may sound old hat. Since 1974, all French presidential elections have been run on the theme of "change."

But when Sarkozy's advisers and supporters and political allies speak of la rupture, they are thinking of something different and bigger--a recognition of past failures that is the precondition of renewed grandeur, along the lines of De Gaulle's break with the government that surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. "The rupture is with the philosophy of French exceptionalism," says Sarkozy's adviser, the National Assembly member Patrick Dévédjian. By this he means the common French idea that France can escape the constraints of other countries because its people and its institutions are so much more sophisticated. Naturally, this is a position that is easy to attack. It involves a swallowing of pride, and Sarkozy's rival Villepin has lost no opportunity to remind his listeners that ruptures are often bloody.


Much of Sarkozy's work involves the way France has changed (and must change further still) in the face of mass immigration, something he has a closer perspective on than most. His father was a Hungarian nobleman who fled west toward the end of World War II and settled in Paris. His mother's father immigrated from Salonika. They were cultivated people--the father was a high-living anti-Communist, the mother put herself through law school after their divorce. Sarkozy did not wind up in government the way cultivated Frenchmen often do--through the elite grandes écoles. He became a lawyer, got involved in politics in the rich suburb of Neuilly, and managed to outflank the crafty RPR politician Charles Pasqua to get himself elected mayor at the age of 28.

This was a coup that brought him to the attention of two great rivals in the party: Jacques Chirac and douard Balladur. The latter, as prime minister, made Sarkozy minister of the budget in the early 1990s, and Sarkozy backed him against Chirac for president in 1995. Sarkozy bet wrong. Since then, he has had to fight against Chirac's machinations to retain his position in the party. In 2002, Chirac moved him from the ministry of the interior to the ministry of finance, a portfolio that--given France's ballooning deficit--is something of a ticking bomb for the person who holds it. When Sarkozy survived and managed to take control of the UMP, Chirac issued a declaration that no one could be both party leader and minister simultaneously. To the surprise of many, Sarkozy opted for the party and turned it into a vehicle for promoting his political fortunes.