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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"PLUS SIMPLE! Plus vite!" says minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy to the waiter bringing croissants to a receiving room outside his office at the ministry. The fellow made the mistake of heating them. That has cost time, and Sarkozy has a lot to do. Just now, he is trying to fit in both an early-morning breakfast and an interview with a foreign journalist that he hopes will take "as little time as possible." More generally, Sarkozy is running the ministry that is the nerve center of post-riot France. He is also running against prime minister Dominique de Villepin and a dozen other hopefuls to replace Jacques Chirac in the presidential elections scheduled for next year.

It is not certain that "Sarko," as he is called in the press, will win, but it is certain he will set the tone. To adapt a metaphor of the political scientist Samuel Lubell, he is the "sun" of the French political scene, generating all the light and ideas. The other candidates are like "moons," merely reflecting the light he gives off--agreeing with Sarko on this, disagreeing with him on that, and sort of agreeing with him on the other thing. According to the Socialist Manuel Valls, the successful mayor of the Paris suburb of vry, who is sometiimes presented as a left-of-center counterweight to Sarkozy, "The things he's talking about are the things the left ought to be talking about. France is losing sight of the essentials. I give him credit for raising these subjects and recognizing that politics has got to change."

Sarkozy has been a politician for most of his 51 years. He resembles Bill Clinton in that he leaves the impression that politics is the only thing he cares about really deeply; he resembles Ronald Reagan in that he seems to view politics as a battle between, on the one hand, hard-working people with on-the-ground knowledge of problems, and, on the other, vainglorious dispensers of official baloney, from academicians to columnists to "community leaders." Very few ministers of any description have visited the isolated and anomic banlieues that exploded in riots last fall. Sarkozy has been there dozens of times. As the minister of the interior, Sarkozy is responsible both for keeping order in the banlieues and for organizing France's religions, particularly the 5 million or so Muslims whom he has with difficulty shepherded into the French religion-and-state system, by means of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which he launched two years ago.

When an 11-year-old boy was shot to death last spring while washing his father's car as a Father's Day present in the Cité des Quatre Mille housing project outside of Paris, Sarkozy promised to clean up the neighborhood "à Kärcher"--citing the trade name of a company that makes high-pressure hoses. While he was visiting Aulnay-sous-Bois at the height of the riots, a mother pleaded with him from a window to do something about the "low-lifes" (racaille) who were burning down the neighborhood. Sarkozy shouted back that he would, and used the word himself. To say that his impetuosity gets him in trouble, as the newspapers often do, is to miss the point. True, Sarkozy is a polarizer. The senior-circuit tennis player Yannick Noah, who--quite bizarrely--is one of the most quoted celebrities in France, allegedly told Paris Match last summer (the remark was never printed), "S'il passe, je me casse!" (If he gets in, I'm out of here!). But at this point Sarkozy is as popular as any politician in the country, even in parts of the banlieues themselves. While some kids echo the condemnations of the press ("Vraiment, 'Kärcher', 'racaille', ça ne passe pas," one Marseille teenager told Le Monde), others admire him. Everyone knows him.

La rupture