The Napoleonic vision

I’M GOING to get a palace in Paris, a chateau at Rambouillet and a fort at Bregancon. C’est la vie. Who said it?


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Published: Wed 29 Aug 2007, 9:15 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:51 PM

The author could possibly be one of the following — a theatre person; a businessman; or a maverick politician. No prize for guessing that a politician it has to be and none other than France’s ‘hyper-president’ Nicolas Sarkozy whose quote on the verge of the presidency is among other juicy titbits in a book that has just hit the national stands, timed to titillate a French public ready to review the president’s report card of his first 100 days in office.

The slim volume is an intimate portrait of Mr. Sarkozy’s pursuit of the presidency through the eyes of Yasmina Reza, France’s most celebrated playwright, who accompanied Mr Sarkozy throughout the election campaign until his installation in the Elysee palace in May. The result is a very readable book, L’Aube, le Soir ou la Nuit, (Dawn, Evening or the Night), a deeply personal and elegantly written encounter between the playwright and the politician, zeroing in not so much on the electoral victory but on what she regards as his obsessive hunger for power.

Reza pulls few punches in her book and shows up Super-Sarko as a vain, self-obsessed and cruel man alongside a vulnerable, childlike side, underpinned by an absolute confidence in his own judgment. But she also shows affection for the “boyish” president.

The 190-page paperback has become the talk-of-the-town and is already the sensation of this fall’s literary season in Paris. It has got the French press in a roll, with Le Parisien calling it a “fabulous portrait of a singular man”, and Le Monde labelling it “caustic, at times cruel, above all juicy.” The popular weekly Le Nouvel Observateur finds it full of dialogue “of which the theatre could be jealous.”

Reza’s close-up of Mr Sarkozy broadly confirms what France already knows or suspects, of its hyper-driven leader. His hallmarks, according to her, are perpetual impatience, a contemptuous attitude and sentimentality. It portrays a man who feigns interest in public appearances that bore him stiff. Yet she also talks of her “unbounded admiration” for the independent spirit of the outsider who confides in her that the presidency brought him no joy but great relief. He owed nothing to anyone.

The dissection of the French president’s Napoleonic personality has little discussion of substance. It steers clear of Sarkozy’s private life and bumpy marriage, omitting any mention of Sarkozy’s headline-grabbing wife, Cecilia. But it offers telling glimpses of the candidate’s forays abroad. Sample this: In London, Sarkozy is thrilled by his lunch with the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Emerging from the Downing Street dining room, Sarkozy announces to his aides: “Tony and I have just taken a decision. We’re going to conquer Europe”.

London also finds Mr Sarkozy, a teetotaller and fitness buff, confiding in the author that he does not admire Winston Churchill, interpreted by her as a disapproval of Churchill’s heavy-drinking life.

In Washington last autumn Mr Sarkozy followed the example of German chancellor Angela Merkel and extended a strong hand of friendship to President Bush. The French press had a field day characterising Sarkozy as the next poodle of Mr Bush.

During the campaign, Mr Sarkozy takes pleasure in putting down President Chirac, his mentor against whom he rebelled. Reza relates an anecdote about how when Mr Chirac telephoned to tell him that he believes he will win, Sarkozys reaction was: “I told him: ‘You’ve been calling me for six months to tell me that you’re worried. I did not believe you then and I don’t believe you now either’.”

Reza paints Sarkozy as a gifted actor driven by a compelling desire to control his own universe, pitted against the passage of time. “I have created my character”, he confides to her.

Reza’s book is already being tipped for this autumn’s Prix Goncourt, the top French literary award and promises to be a bestseller. She has won numerous prizes, including Olivier and Evening Standard awards for Art, which was a long running hit in the West End of London as well as Broadway.

Now back to the report card. By all accounts, Nicolas Sarkozy has made a flying start to his presidency. On the domestic front, he has shown himself to be a brilliant tactician. His Socialist opposition has been divided and denuded by the appointment to senior positions of some of its leading figures, rendering the party ineffectual in opposition.

This is thus a definitive moment for Mr Sarkozy, reminiscent of 1958 when De Gaulle was recalled to power. The general’s policy of openness embraced the brightest figures of the left to become pillars of Gaullist reform and thus perpetuate the right’s 23-year hold on power. Mr Sarkozy is credited with wanting to change the political landscape in a lasting way.

Abroad, the president has given France fresh impetus in Europe and has acted swiftly to seal a new entente cordiale with the US. After 100 days in office, his ratings make him France’s most popular leader since Charles de Gaulle. The key to his popularity has been his openness to the opposition and his very public determination to implement the promises made during his presidential campaign, a trait that greatly endears him to the French masses.

It has to be remembered that Sarkozy is also a first generation immigrant who has brought other immigrants into government, and an outsider not moulded by the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration that has governed France for several decades.

Living up to his “hyper-president’ nickname, Mr Sarkozy is back from his powwow with President Bush and ready to go forward with economic reforms.

In the meantime, German chancellor Angela Merkel has returned from London after working towards a new political partnership with British premier Gordon Brown.

While the two leaders were testing the waters in the new political map of Europe, Ms Merkel also used the visit to burnish her role as a key European powerbroker, intensifying relations with the UK to avoid becoming too closely tied to France. Ms Merkel has in fact been irritated by some of Mr Sarkozy’s political initiatives, especially protectionist elements in his industrial policy.

Nor can she forget that a euphoric Mr Sarkozy co-opted Mr Blair in his successful effort to persuade her to accept a watered-down version of the defunct European Constitution. Touche!

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer

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