Psychoanalyzing the French President: 'Sarkozy Just Wants to Be Loved'

French director Xavier Durringer's new film, "The Conquest," chronicles the political rise of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses how Sarkozy has brought the cult of personality into French politics, the sudden downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the high price of ambition.

Photo Gallery: Sarkozy and the Conquest of Power Photos
REUTERS

SPIEGEL: Mr. Durringer, you're the first person to ever make a film about an incumbent French president's thirst for power and his failings as a husband. In doing so, you've disregarded the previously sacrosanct line in France between the public and private personas of the country's head of state. Have you broken a taboo?

Xavier Durringer: It was Nicolas Sarkozy himself who divested the persona of the king and the role of the politician of its sacred status. His presence in the media and the public eye is greater than that of a pop star or an actor. He has led politics into the age of glamour and celebrity.

SPIEGEL: Do you think Sarkozy is a good example of how leading politicians can adroitly put themselves in the limelight emotionally so as to win over the hearts and minds of voters?

Durringer: To be more popular, he plays with transparency. Whether he's jogging, biking or kissing his wife, the cameras are always there.

SPIEGEL: Is that supposed to make the French think he's just like them?

Durringer: Yes, and that's why they're supposed to buy into his politics. Sarkozy is a master showman who has brought the cult of the personality into French politics.

SPIEGEL: But that has its dangers, as well.

Durringer: It has certainly played tricks on him in the past. By giving us a window into his private life, he has altered the traditional code of conduct. Cecilia, his second wife, also broke a taboo during his rise to the presidency and dispelled the illusion of domestic bliss: She dared to leave him shortly before his greatest triumph, didn't vote and filed for divorce. That's completely unprecedented -- in any country.

SPIEGEL: Though it sure makes great movie material, there has to be more to this than just the trivialization of politics. Is it a sign of the times?

Durringer: Whether it's the Greeks, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Molière or, more recently, Brecht, playwrights have always sought to shine a critical light on their society. And part of that is questioning the policies of those in power. In a democracy, it's healthy to have artists hold a mirror up to the world and allow us to look into the sun or the abyss.

SPIEGEL: You have clearly seen more darkness than light. Are you worried about how Sarkozy might react? On several occasions, he has shown that he can silence critics he doesn't like. He simply makes a direct call to the owners of the relevant media companies …

Durringer: … and demands that they be kept on a shorter leash. And what results from this is a kind of political self-censorship typical for France.

SPIEGEL: Does this reluctance reflect a fear of powerful people? Or is it merely an expression of respect for privacy, as some would claim?

Durringer: Though some people knew about it, President Francois Mitterrand's second family and his daughter, Mazarine, benefited from this protection. The media also kept silent about the nocturnal escapades of (French presidents) Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac. Of course there were rumors, but nobody wanted to delve into it further. The French people are quite willing to accept that politicians lead double lives, that they have affairs and mistresses. Infidelity and extramarital affairs are normal parts of life. France is a libertarian society; we have politicians who are a lot like us.

SPIEGEL: Do you think this tolerance will disappear because of Sarkozy's exhibitionism -- which is vaguely reminiscent of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's -- and the implosion of Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

Durringer: Sarkozy has tried to draw attention to himself and has even summoned photographers when going on vacation. Strauss-Kahn is another case entirely -- and one that saddens me deeply. It's a shocking catastrophe for France and politics in general. A frightening tale is being written as we speak. Strauss-Kahn embodied the hopes of the political left. France needed a strong challenger like him to run against Sarkozy in next year's presidential election. Now our entire political class is taking a beating, and I can only hope that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, doesn't emerge as the joyous victor.

SPIEGEL: Strauss-Kahn's precipitous fall is the stuff of dark novel, and the story is perfect for a film because the facts are stranger than fiction. Does that make it tempting for a director like you?

Durringer: This exceeds my moral limits; I'd never touch that story. Being prosecuted for sexual assault is completely different than having people know about your mistresses. A movie about "DSK," as he is known in France, would have to try to analyze his relationship with women from a psychological point of view. That's repugnant -- and definitely not for me.

SPIEGEL: His womanizing was well-known, and his sexual advances were notorious. But people kept quiet about them. Was this really a failure on the part of the French media, as the American media claims? And doesn't the current silence of France's politicians -- or at least the womanizers among them -- give off the impression that they think they can do as they please?

Durringer: If it does, they have clearly failed in their duty as guardians. But Strauss-Kahn still hasn't told his side of the story. And, until then, we need to keep an open mind. If it turned out that there was a certain pattern to his behavior toward women and that there were repeated attempts to cross the line, it would certainly be devastating. This story really moves me because I have always thought very highly of DSK.

SPIEGEL: But, as is also the case with Sarkozy, it shows that a mantle of privacy can't be used to shroud a politician's character and personality.

Durringer: Sooner or later, everyone has to face their moment of truth. Nobody forces people to become politicians. If you step into this world, you have to sacrifice a lot of things -- including love and friendships -- and you have to do horrible things. You can only win power by elbowing your enemies aside. Sarkozy has lost track of all the things he gave up to win. And that's what my movie shows.

SPIEGEL: You make it sounds like a Shakespearian tragedy. But the film is much more like a comedy.

Durringer: I disagree. "The Conquest" is a movie about the comedy of power. It's not a political film; it's a film about politics. The audience's laughter merely underlines what the politician has sacrificed -- his loneliness, his narcissism and his gradual loss of love, friends, morals, convictions and principles.

SPIEGEL: But politicians don't do these things alone. Do you think that French journalists play a willing role in this process because they enjoy being close to powerful people more than doing their job, which is to sound the alarm?

Durringer: At the apex of power, politics is all about the art of presentation. And you can't have that without journalists. They travel with the president, they are his dinner guests, and they become his confidantes. That creates a bond, a feeling of belonging to a political media elite.

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About Xavier Durringer
DPA
Xavier Durringer, 47, is the director of "The Conquest," a new film about the political rise of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style and is meant to provide a not only a portrait of France's top leader, but also a window into the intrigues and cut-throat competition in the world of Elysee Palace.

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