Friday, May 2, 2008


It feels like comic relief in this American presidential campaign hyper-fatigue: French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the rupture candidate, is facing his first annual review with distressed ratings and a public opinion that swings from straight criticism to frank laughs. In the June issue of Vanity Fair, editor Graydon Carter writes:
The country is weary of its president and his jeans-wearing, gunslinger style. It's weary of what they perceive as his middlebrow taste, his sometimes inappropriate behavior, and his disdain for anything intellectual or cultural. He is a subject of ridicule among the thinking classes, who say he represents the worst sort of Americant astea nd manner. I'm referring here, of course, to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French fashion plate. As much as a world leader who arrives late for his audience with the Pope and then reportedly sends a text message during the meeting is a boon to the French political-humor industry, it has to be said that the reign of Sarkozy--along with his uniform of aviators, turtlenecks, and accordian-cuff pants--is beginning to get to the delicate Paris intelligentsia, who cling to their culture the way Americans do their guns and religion.
Calling the French presidency a theater, The Economist complains about the limited changes Sarkozy has brought to France so far -- failing to comprehend how hard it is to bring reforms to the country. And in its review of the English translation of Yasmina Reza's book on Sarkozy, the IHT wonders whether the French writer and famous playwright was prescient in describing him as "impetuous, irascible, sentimental, occasionally vulgar, frequently childish."

What the Economist and the IHT do not grasp is that, despite his bling bling, his commoner vulgarity and his sinking popularity, Sarkozy brings some fresh air to French politics and to France in general -- as well as much needed, much decried and much contested reforms, which will take time to materialize. As former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin once said in his aristocratic locker room-style speak, "La France est une vieille fille qui ne demande qu'une chose, c'est qu'on la prenne en levrette" (France is an old maid who is only begging to be taken doggie-style.) Meaning, France needs it, wants it, but will resent it. It takes balls, gusto, and time to change anything in France. No apparatchik will risk it. Sarkozy does.

His pushing reforms through is a matter of survival for France. As Graydon Carter concluded, "There are those outside France who feel that Sarkozy and his glamorous new wife, Carla Bruni, bring a breath of fresh air to a country whose politics are both baroque and broke." Baroque and broke being the key words.

Regarding the critique that Sarkozy is "unstatesmanly," French philosopher André Glucksman argues that he brings a healthy désacralisation of the presidential role -- noting that May 68 didn't get rid of "The Father," and that the French still assimilate their president to the King (whose head they gladly chopped off in 1789 yet without ever bringing closure.) Sarkozy is neither father nor king.

His openly and shamelessly enjoying the "bling" perks that come with the presidential job may ruffle a few feathers, but at least he doesn't belong to the inept, change-adverse elite. In France, you're either born into privilege or you're not -- you have no legitimacy in claiming or reaching it on your own. Sarkozy challenges that paradigm. Hence the breath of fresh air he brings, and the subsequent controversy.

Yet, if he could polish his act, whether through his new, upper-class wife, or through his genuine faculty of adaptation, it would make us feel better about supporting his reforming agenda. A suivre...
[update 05/14/08: Un Homme in Full in The Atlantic]
s: Plantu via Google Images