The Magazine

‘The Rich People’s President’

Will France’s Nicolas Sarkozy be the next European leader to fall?

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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If you understood how French president Nicolas Sarkozy found himself holed up in a barroom in Bayonne last Thursday afternoon, it would take you a long way towards figuring out what is going to happen in France’s two-round presidential election, coming up in April and May. Sarkozy, who heads France’s conservative UMP party, was making a surprise visit to the Basque country, along the border with Spain. The Socialists, who have not held the presidency since 1995, got wind of his visit. Together with local Basque separatists, they succeeded in blocking the center of Bayonne. When Sarkozy emerged from his car, he was surrounded by a whistling, hooting, chanting mob, taunting him as “the rich people’s president” and telling him he ought to go home. That is when Sarkozy ducked into the bar to talk with locals while eggs flew, along with anything else in Bayonne that grows, rots, and can be thrown.

Cartoon of French candidates racing on bikes

Bling it on

Sarko, as he is called, is not popular in Bayonne. At this point, he is not especially popular anywhere in France. For a while after his election in 2007 he had the highest poll ratings of any French president ever. He promised a regime of law and order and a strengthening of French national identity that appealed to the far-right National Front. This meant standing up to Muslim immigration but not in any violent or intolerant way. In fact, Sarko’s greatest achievement before becoming president was to set up a national council under which Muslims could assert their religious rights. His plan for bringing France’s different ethnic groups together involved a defense of laïcité, or secularism, and the left liked that. The centerpiece of his campaign, though, was a defense of hard work, of the “France that wakes up early.” In a country prone to conspiracy theories, where people often feel they’ve been bled white by fast-talking politicians and sleazy business moguls, this appealed to almost everybody. 

Things started to go wrong the moment Sarkozy was elected—literally. Instead of celebrating with supporters in the Place de la Concorde, according to political tradition, he let his proletarian foot soldiers cool their heels for a couple of hours while he went to Fouquet’s, an upper-crust bar and restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, to meet with his big donors. We now know that Sarkozy’s real problem was that his wife Cécilia, who had already begun divorce proceedings against him, was nowhere to be found. No matter—this was the beginning of Sarko’s reputation as le président des riches. When he got married again, months into his term, to Italian chanteuse Carla Bruni, he was cast as le président bling-bling—“bling” having the same meaning in France that it has in the American ghettos where it originated, implying the flaunting of ill-gotten gains. 

So Sarko was cast as a phony, whose real allegiances were to those same fast-talking politicians and sleazy business moguls he had railed against. His conversation on national identity stalled when opponents accused his interior minister of racism and his allies lost their nerve. His attempts to put more disposable income into the hands of French consumers foundered along with the economy. His efforts to strut France’s stuff on the world stage backfired similarly. France was sort of leading the coalition against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, but in a way that made clear its dependence on American airpower. France was sort of joining Germany in rescuing the euro, but in a way that made clear Germany’s interests were paramount. 

At some point, people began to tune Sarkozy out, as if his pronouncements were all theater and damage control. The dozen candidates competing for the presidency in the first round of the election have been rising and falling in the polls in a volatile way, with Sarkozy winning the allegiance of just under 30 percent of voters. But polls also show that if he and Socialist candidate François Hollande make it into a runoff, Hollande will beat him by 58 percent to 42. Those numbers have not budged in weeks, even as Sarkozy has splashily rolled out his campaign. 

But Sarkozy has something that would make it premature to rule him out. It is not just that he is good at “working a crowd” or that he has a “head for policy” or a “first-rate organization.” It is that he has an absolutely daemonic gift for campaigning, for political improvisation, for recasting disaster as triumph. In the half-century since Lyndon Johnson left the Senate, Bill Clinton is the only American politician who is Sarkozy’s equal at this game of Who-you-gonna-believe?-Me-or-your-lyin’-eyes? 

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