Sarkozy Closes in on his Goal Ambition and Honesty on the French Campaign Trail

Anywhere else, Nicolas Sarkozy would be considered centrist. But in France, the "neoliberal with a French passport" raises eyebrows everywhere he goes. He speaks his mind and is not afraid of controversy. It may be the perfect recipe for presidential victory.

By Ullrich Fichtner


Nicolas Sarkozy's Tour de France resembles a breathless race against the clock. From Verdun to Strasbourg, from Perpignan to Sancerre, from Chamonix to Bordeaux. He has made appearances in Avignon and Besançon, Nantes, Caen and Toulouse. He has given speeches in Essonne in southern Paris, in Cormeilles-en-Parisis in the city's north. The campaign to succeed Jacques Chirac as France’s next president has taken him to Marseilles, and destinations further afield like Madrid, Berlin and the Antilles. And that's just the last six weeks -- one last burst of energy before reaching the electoral finish line.

Indeed, it seems forever ago that he was in Sancerre, an ancient stone village perched above the Loire River, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Paris -- though the stop came at the end of February. He arrives in his motorcade of dark Renaults and Citroëns, followed by three buses packed with journalists, on a day of changeable weather -- first rain, then sun, then wind. Sarkozy stands on the veranda of the "Maison des Sancerres," the main headquarters of the region's vintners.

Their chairman gives Sarkozy -- still France's interior minister, a position he resigned from in late March to concentrate on the campaign -- a warm welcome before clumsily mentioning local concerns and the wine industry's financial woes. He then hands his prominent guest the microphone with the words: "We would like to hear more about it from you, Monsieur le Président."

Monsieur le Président. It is clearly a mistake, but no one laughs -- in fact, hardly anyone seems to have noticed. Monsieur le Président. Sarkozy plays the statesman role so naturally that it's easy to forget that he is still just one candidate in a field of 12 contenders -- one of the two or three frontrunners in this presidential race, which enters its first round on Sunday, April 22. Monsieur le Président. It's the title to which Nicolas Sarkozy's life-long hunt, his personal Tour de France, has been dedicated.

Directness and clarity

On the veranda in Sancerre, Sarkozy ignores the blunder, choosing instead to launch in to the practiced role of concerned candidate -- a role he plays almost to perfection. He knows that French vintners eye him with suspicion, both for his public acknowledgment that he doesn't drink alcohol and for his rigid campaign to lower the blood-alcohol level allowed on French roads -- much to the vintners' disadvantage. In Sancerre, famous for its elegant dry wines, Sarkozy is not on friendly territory. But if there's one thing he knows, it's how to work a crowd.

"Thank you for your kind words," he says. "But what I am hearing is an unasked question: What's going to happen with the traffic checks?" The vintners laugh, nudging and glancing at one another as if to comment approvingly on Sarkozy's approach. "Let me tell you the truth," says Sarkozy, "and please accept it as my way of showing you respect. The traffic checks will continue. I know you don't like to hear this, but we have thousands fewer deaths on our roads. No one can argue against that."

Sarkozy keeps talking for another 10 or 12 minutes, outlining his campaign's main objectives, but it is the initial impression, the first sentences he utters, the directness with which he points out contradictions and the clarity with which he rebuffs expectations that ultimately prompt the vintners to give him a round of enthusiastic applause. Finally they have someone standing in front of them who takes them seriously and treats them like adults, not someone who acts as though they were children who needed protection. That someone is Sarkozy. He clearly relishes the effect he has had on his audience.

Scenes like the one in Sancerre have repeated themselves again and again wherever Sarkozy shows up these days. He takes trade unionists to task in factories and argues with business owners demanding subsidies. He wants to know why the unemployed are complaining, and he is quick to strike back when hecklers brand him as a dictator and extremist in sheep's clothing. This is campaigning a la Sarkozy, constantly on the offensive.

A highly effective strategy

Sarkozy and his speechwriters have invented a new way of confronting and even berating his audiences. The candidate cultivates an openness that would devastate most other European politicians, an approach he developed long before he began his bid for the French presidency. Instead of hoping that no one will bring up controversial issues he brings them up himself. Instead of ignoring criticism he asks for it. And instead of sugarcoating problems he highlights them. He says: "I will not lie to you and I will not deceive you. We've had enough of that." It's a highly effective strategy.

After Sarkozy's speech in Sancerre, the chairman of the vintners' association stands in the midst of a group of journalists from Paris. As he refills their wineglasses he insists that his only concern was not to lump together wine and traffic deaths. "But let me tell you something else," he says to the journalists. "I prefer someone like Sarkozy, someone who tells you that white is white and black is black. I don't care about the rest of it."

Sarkozy has a gift for telling things as they are. Or at least that's the impression he often gives. His opponents in this election season are often driven to distraction by Sarkozy's other gift -- his knack for gray, of mixing up black with white and of flip-flopping between right and left. His coronation speech -- delivered before tens of thousands of supporters in Paris's Porte de Versailles after being anointed the conservative candidate in mid-January -- set the tone for everything to follow.

Sarkozy painted a sumptuous tableau of what he called the "France that I mean," and in doing so, drew indiscriminately on the ideals and idols of the right and the left, including famous labor leaders like Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. It was a heady speech, one that will live on in many a university seminar. And Sarkozy, fully cognizant of its impact, presented it with a presidential air of authority.

The next day Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Libération, called Sarkozy's speech a rhetorical stroke of genius, and wrote: "Yes, this man is dangerous. Especially for the left." France's socialists issued angry press releases without knowing exactly what they were objecting to. How could they possibly complain about a man who had just praised their traditions, a man who had counted the labor movement as one the great moments in French history?

Part of the glorious history he cites

Those who would call Sarkozy a player are wrong. When he quotes Jaurès, he does so because he has in fact read Jaurès. When he refers to Léon Blum or the Résistance, to Albert Camus or Emile Zola, to Clemenceau or de Gaulle, to Louis XIV or the revolutionaries of 1789, one can be fairly certain that Sarkozy, a man who literally devours documents and books, is familiar with their history, lives and works from more than just hearsay.

But this is also part of his problem. He already perceives himself as part of the glorious history he cites -- as one those great men who, as if answering some higher calling, will shape eras.

Indeed, polls often indicate that voters see Sarkozy as unsettling, even alarming, and his healthy sense of self-importance is likely to blame. Many see the small-statured Sarkozy as a ruthless wannabe and social climber, a man intoxicated by his own ambition and willing to step on heads to further his career.

Sarkozy was a member of the city council in Neuilly-sur-Seine at 22, mayor of the city at 28, a member of parliament at 33, and, in the early 1990s, budget minister and spokesman for the Edouard Balladur government at 38. He has served as communications minister, interior minister and finance minister. He has dozens of party and regional offices under his belt and was a leading candidate in the European elections. He has even already been immortalized in wax at Musée Grévin, the Paris version of Madame Tussauds. And he is just 52 years old.

Instead of fighting Sarkozy head-on, his opponents usually combat the caricature they have created of him. Instead of refuting his arguments, they sneer at his body language, the erratic movements he makes with his head when he speaks, the twitching of the shoulders, a habit he has unsuccessfully tried to break. At bad moments he comes across as a character from a mafia movie, as a lawyer for some old godfather, a man who is sometimes shady, a dandy whose hair is too perfectly in place, tie knot too big and Ray-Bans too flashy.

"French kid with mixed blood"

In his better moments, Sarkozy greets voters affably, coming across as genuine and direct in his interactions with people, as if he were speaking with equals. This even applies to his interactions with immigrants, even though his tough stance on immigration has brought him more condemnation than any other issue in this campaign. But of all the criticisms of Sarkozy, the most absurd is the claim that he is essentially a racist. His origins alone are enough to disprove that theory.

His father is Hungarian and his mother comes from a Jewish family. He refers to himself as "a French kid with mixed blood," a first-generation child of immigrant parents, born in Paris seven years after his father arrived in France, baptized a Catholic and, after the separation of his parents, raised in the house of his Jewish grandfather.

The claim that Sarkozy -- a man who won an award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 2003 for his efforts to wipe out racism -- is a racist is derived from the "national" passages of his speeches, the ones on immigration policy. He wants to limit family immigration and deport undocumented foreigners, and he wants to see newcomers required to respect France and its values, speak French, love the country and be familiar with its culture.

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