The Sarko Show

The Sarko Show

Nicolas Sarkozy put down in N’djamena to press for greater democracy. Before leaving Paris he ordered more French troops to Afghanistan to shore up NATO’s parlous effort to keep the Taliban at bay. He is renegotiating all defense deals with African nations. He is giving priority to his agenda for the European Union when France takes on the six-month rotating presidency in July. He is back from Romania where he struck a “strategic partnership,” and from French Guiana where illicit panning for gold was on the agenda, and from India where he did a defense deal and from South Africa where he sold another nuclear power plant. He is working long term to shore up Franco-German ties and lobbying intensely to win Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support for a Mediterranean Union, his single biggest idea. He is maintaining pressure on Iran over nuclear proliferation, and his foreign minister has offered to help negotiate America’s way out of Iraq.

As Sarkozy’s international ambitions fill much of his docket he is ever more the hyper president. But the French are finding other names to call him.

Elected on a raft of promises about “rupture” with France’s stultified institutions, Nicolas Sarkozy has delivered dramatically. First by ending a marriage, then in losing the electorate. And, as the French say, “il persiste et signe,” meaning he is adamantly what he is. And what he appears to be is very willful.

Gradually over a number of weeks-as his marriage to Cécilia unraveled and he flaunted his affair with Carla Bruni for the paparazzi from Disneyland Paris to the Valley of the Kings-more and more of the French turned off on the Sarko Show. Especially when bad reruns filled the airwaves and streamed through Wi-Fi connections as YouTube joined bloggers in turning Sarkozy’s excesses and imprudence into the main topics of political conversation. Instead of dynamique, Sarkozy has became dégondé, or unhinged. Or dévergondé? That means shameless.

There was a memorable point in the truculent presidential debate last May when his Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, rose up in anger and Sarkozy capitalized on her lack of sangfroid. “You have to be calm to be president,” he said, calmly, as she raged. He won the point, but he has since lost it in spades.

Pauvre con” is an expression that today is widely used in almost-polite society, to the point that it would never shock when one delivery driver yells it at another, despite its extremely vulgar (and sexist) origin. It’s a staple in the rougher suburbs. It’s so widely used, in fact, that “jerk” is a plausible euphemism in a family newspaper-plausible, but highly bowdlerized. But there’s no bowdlerizing the president’s outburst when it’s captured on a cellphone cam. So at the annual agricultural fair when Sarkozy responded to a protester’s rudeness with “casse-toi, pauvre con” (“take a walk, poor ****) the incident assumed a phenomenal dimension for the French, for whom dignity and decency remain primordial. As his popularity plummeted, the dual messages in the polls have been, “You have to be calm to be president. And you have to be presidential too.”

Sarkozy’s almost-apology afterwards seemed to owe something to Jacques Chirac’s lesson to Eastern Europe: he had missed a good chance to keep his mouth shut.

But there are signs that a censuring public attitude has edged toward dismissiveness, and even Sarkozy’s loyalists seem to reflect that. “We can’t change the guy,” one of them said to Le Monde. The newspaper doesn’t give away his name, but even without a name or a face you can just see the speaker shaking his head.

All of which is not to argue that Sarkozy has failed in his brief tenure. His early deftness was impressive. He was effective in tackling job market regulations and resolute with the unions, flushing away a bit of their attitude of entitlement. His government of ouverture-including members of other political parties-looks good philosophically and reinforces the Socialists’ disarray. Reversing the entrenched policy of anti-Americanism has brought only shrugs at home but satisfaction in Washington and relief in Berlin and Brussels. And his pledge to “stand by Israel” is being interpreted as a subtle but stunning renunciation of decades of pro-Arab policy.

But as Cécilia walked out and he moved in on Carla, his attention was not on matters of state. Promises of economic betterment, especially for low and middle wage earners, are not only far from met but the outlook for improvement has sunk with slowed growth, a rapid rise in consumer prices  and a blip upward in unemployment after a year of decline.

In one recent poll more than half of the respondents claimed to still have confidence in Sarkozy’s ability to reform the country. But that’s not what people are talking about. His crass personal behavior and his style-it’s not just his opponents who call him monarchical-have driven a considerable wedge between the president and the public.

His whirlwind showbiz affair with Carla Bruni-model, singer, femme fatale récidiviste-was a cover-story example of his impetuousness. Now there is not only public disapprobation, there is also an angry fatigue with his rush to deal personally with every single issue, many of them unworthy of a president’s attention and some requiring more thought and reflection. “There’s not one Sarko, there are 10,” said Jean-François Achilli, who has covered him for five years for radio station France Inter and written two books about him. “Sarkozy’s great weakness is that he does too many things and thinks that only he can do them.” It’s a guns ablazin’ approach that has no recent models in international leadership.

There’s an argument-worth listening to-that his low ratings won’t be permanent. The negative opinion polls thoroughly prepared his party, the UMP, for censure in the May municipal elections. But with those behind him, Sarkozy has an open field to re-establish his credibility Even as the butt of jokes, he is still in charge. Now that the French have made it clear that they want their president to behave like one, maybe he’ll reconsider. As for his soaring international ambitions, one observation is that he has succeeded mostly in italicizing La France, turning it into another Southern European stage for opera buffa. Notes an American friend: “At least now the French know what it feels like to be embarrassed by their president.”

To exploit the humor in the situation, French funnymen-deprived of the comic monologues that fill America’s late-night TV screens-have taken to their printing presses. The current outpouring of books on Sarkozy would “fill your suitcase,” as a bookstore sales clerk said, particularly the BDs-bandes dessinées, as popular comic books and cartoons are called. BD humor is biting, unsubtle and rich in jeux de mots, in the style of the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé. There’s Sarko Ier and La Face Karchée de Sarkozy. The first title is obvious, with a cover drawing of Sarkozy as a blustery Napoleon, and the second an easy double entendre. La face cachée is the hidden side, and karchée recalls Sarkozy’s forceful threat during the riots in Paris’s suburbs to take a water cannon (one brand name is Kärcher) to the “riffraff” he accused of fomenting the violence.

There’s Conte de Fées à l’Elysée, whose humor is as trashy as the clothes it puts on Carla, and Sarkorama, which turns every recent political controversy into a pithy cartoon and caption. With more words than pictures, and more subtly awash in innocence is a Petit Nicolas series by “Gospé et Sempinny”, including Le Petit Nicolas à l’Elysée. The authors’ pseudonyms are part of the joke, since the idea derives from well-known children’s books by René Goscinny illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé. The originals were characterized delightfully by one reviewer as: “Short stories. Small boy. Big adventures. Real life. Happy smile.” The smiles delivered by the satirical versions are a little more méchante as they turn the whole classe politique into schoolchildren. Nicolas always bests his mates, sometimes by sticking out his foot so that they fall on their faces, Alain (Juppé) is sent away no one knows where, and la petite Ségolène (Royal) is either pushing aside the teacher and taking over the class, or running away in a pout. The humor is as mordant as David Letterman’s, and a lot cuter.

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  • Gavin
    2014-05-07 16:44:02
    This is totally out of date - why is it being sent to me as "France Today"?