Pop Goes the President

Nicolas Sarkozy and what American candidates might learn from France's permanent reality show


History, even trivial history, does indeed repeat itself as farce. In December 1995, Francois Mitterrand traveled to Aswan in southern Egypt to spend his Christmas holidays. It was a fittingly Wagnerian ending for the dying former French president—a last communion with timelessness through contact with a timeless culture, before Mitterrand met the real thing in Paris a week later.

Cut to last Christmas. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also decides to holiday in Egypt. He stays at Luxor—not Aswan but close enough. Descending from a private jet, Sarkozy, his Ray Bans tilted forward, his shirt opened an extra button, looks more like a Corsican hoodlum than the president of a venerable nation. At his arm is new girlfriend Carla Bruni, whom no one seems quite sure what to describe as. Model? Singer? Next First Lady? This is their first overseas expedition together, after the media discovered they were an item during an outing to EuroDisney.

"Vulgar!" was how many Frenchmen described their president after witnessing all this. And vulgar Sarkozy surely is. There is little gravitas to a hyperactive man present everywhere and nowhere, with a strong opinion on just about everything; someone evidently enjoying his recent divorce, who seems as bored with high culture as he delights in the favors and company of the affluent, of pop singers and actors.

But that's missing the significant point that Sarkozy has skillfully used his relentless presence in the media as a source of political advantage, while redefining what the presidency can be all about. By being a pop figure himself, ever-present in the minds of his countrymen, publicly and personally, Sarkozy has managed to retain the initiative. With much in the media about Sarkozy, his leadership has turned into a reality show and the president is writing the script. So ubiquitous is Sarkozy that he is the state and the state is he. How better to define political power?

Those now moving through the U.S. primaries might want to investigate. Sarkozy, often referred to as the most "American" of French politicians, has until now juggled paradoxes. He was elected as the candidate of a conservative party, peddling a message that France needed to return to traditional values. Yet he is anything but conservative in his avidness for luxury and attention; and anything but an agent of traditional morality in his private life. However, that doesn't much differentiate him from, let's say, the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, still Europe's archetype of schlock. What does is that Sarkozy is who he is in France, where presidents invariably act like republican monarchs

There is more to that kind of presidential behavior than old Europe stuffiness. To act like a monarch without being one, to play the members of their court off against each other, is a way French presidents have had of maintaining control over an unruly political class and society. Mitterrand was an expert at dividing his supporters to boost his authority; Charles de Gaulle so naturally behaved like a man of destiny that the French created a new republic to accommodate him. Even Jacques Chirac, who earlier in his career had also sold himself as an "American" politician because of his fondness for pressing the flesh and his informality, by the end had morphed into a detached royal in the public consciousness—stuck in a gloomy palace with a wife he could neither stomach nor divorce, whom he was said to address with the formal "vous."

Sarkozy has taken a different tack. He's still all-dominating and has demoted his prime minister to little more than an assistant's role. But that domination comes not from pulling the strings from a high perch, but from the president's getting personally involved in the muck of politicking. So, for example, although he named Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister, Sarkozy has blocked him out of his highest-profile overseas undertakings—whether relations with the United States, or Libya, the fate of French aid workers detained until recently in Chad, and contacts with the Syrian regime over the presidential election in Lebanon.

There is risk here, because the president himself might rise or fall with the outcome of his actions. In Lebanon, Sarkozy was so keen to arrive at a deal with Syria to enhance his personal prestige, that he completely ignored a United Nations resolution co-sponsored by France in 2005 that sought to prevent involving Damascus in Lebanon's presidency. It didn't matter: Syria humiliated the French anyway by undermining their scheme to resolve the Lebanese crisis. The recent visit to Paris of Libya's leader Moammar al-Qaddafi turned into a public relations disaster for Sarkozy when even government ministers expressed their distaste. And Sarkozy's involvement of his wife in negotiations with Libya over the release of Bulgarian nurses last summer looked disturbingly like an effort to save his failing marriage by handing her a sensitive mission.

Yet Sarkozy's breaking of taboos, his imposition of a public and personal narrative to keep his political adversaries off balance, makes you wonder whether his strategy can be applied by politicians elsewhere who want to remain on top. France is very different than other countries, particularly the United States. But maybe not as much as we think. Americans may not soon take to a president gallivanting with his latest girlfriend, whose nude photos circulate freely on the Internet. However, they were surprisingly tolerant when a president of theirs lied by suggesting that the blowjob he had been provided did not really qualify as sex. Americans are also more likely than the French to appreciate a celebrity-president who likes popular culture—indeed who is popular culture–because that's far closer to the nature of their society than it is of French society.

As for the pull of traditional "values," so central to political life in America, Sarkozy has shown that politicians can maneuver in the gap between rhetoric and behavior, and still remain credible. The continued devotion to the Kennedy fable is as good an American illustration of this proposition. John F. Kennedy paid any price and bore any burden to get laid, but still remains among the most respected of U.S. presidents. As Gore Vidal has written, describing JFK's reaction after being elected: "'Mass every Sunday,' Jack would moan, 'for four years.'" The lesson is that if you play to the gallery on values, you can do what you want in private. At least Sarkozy's conduct is offered up minus the hypocrisy.

In his way, Sarkozy is quite invigorating: a post-modern president in what is sometimes, oddly, a pre-modern society—all baroque rules, obstinate certitudes, veiled prejudices, and a surprising affection for hierarchy. In an American campaign where some candidates have latched onto the catchword of "change", without daring to change much, Sarkozy's dissidence is instructive. Times are changing, thank heavens for that.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.