Super-Sarko Shakes Up the French Political Scene
France, for now, embraces its new American-style president
PARISSporting designer sunglasses and cellphone in hand, Nicolas Sarkozy cheered and waved enthusiastically to spectators as he followed the fabled Tour de France bicycle race while standing in a fast-moving, open-topped red car. The scene was vintage Sarkozyconfident, exuberant, dynamic. In a word, modern.
Just days before his Tour de France performance, Sarkozy celebrated his first Bastille Day as France's new president in tradition-breaking style. He held up the military parade to shake hands in the crowd, skipped the practice of issuing mass pardons for prisoners (reinforcing his law-and-order reputation), and joined some 600,000 people attending a free evening rock concert. It hardly seemed to matter that he canceled the customary presidential television interview that in the past followed the military parade. The French have become used to seeing their new conservative-leaning president almost nightly on the television news, American style.
Omnipotent. In less than three months in office, Sarkozy has turned the imperial French presidency into a folksy affair, patting official visitors on the back, running up the main entrance of the classical, 18th-century presidential Elysée Palace in his jogging outfit, taking a labor leader to lunch in a fancy Parisian restaurant, dashing about the country and abroad (last week to Libya, after playing a role in winning the release of six imprisoned foreign medics), and generally stunning his compatriots with the energy and pizazz that have earned him the nickname Super-Sarko. "Omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, the head of state decides everything, speaks about everything, intervenes in everything, evokes everything," opposition Socialist Party President François Hollande told the National Assembly last month.
Hollande's comment was not meant as a compliment but accurately defines the Sarkozy styleperhaps best captured by the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, which recently portrayed the head of state on its cover as a hamster running maniacally inside his wheel. "For the first time, and like in the United States, the French elected a television star and not a character from a novel," Régis Debray, the left-wing philosopher, told the weekly Le Point. "The link with the humanities, with the written word, is cut. Now it's the look and jogging."
But there is substance to the style. Since coming to power in May, Sarkozy has garnered some important achievements. He played a major role in unblocking the European Union's institutional paralysis following the 2005 rejection by French and Dutch voters of a proposed EU constitution. He and German Chancellor Angela Merkel restructured the troubled Airbus operation and its parent holding company, EADS. He is the first French president to name a government composed of an equal number of men and women, with the latter heading high-profile ministries including finance, interior, and justice.
A wily political manipulator, Sarkozy has thrown the opposition Socialist Party off balance by naming key party figures to top posts, including Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, as foreign minister. Jack Lang, a former Socialist culture and education minister who chastised Sarkozy as a "Bush adapted for France" during the presidential campaign, accepted appointment to a blue-ribbon panel on reforming France's political institutions. Furious, the Socialist Party warned Lang he would be excluded from its leadership if he heeded the call. Lang resigned from the party instead.