08 January 2008

France, to Rhyme with Romance

The Happy Couple

The best show in town these days is President Nicolas Sarkozy’s love life. Considering the behavior of other presidents around the world, the French are lucky. But they seem uncertain how to respond. They have no practice at this sort of thing.

Traditionally, French presidents hold themselves aloof from almost every conventional human activity. They do this in imitation, conscious or not, of French kings, but their presidential role model is especially Napoléon III, who was briefly president before seizing power in a coup d’état in 1851; he was crowned emperor shortly thereafter. Charles de Gaulle behaved much the same way, but in reverse, with a kind of coup d’état in 1958 that resulted in his being elected president — with the power of an emperor. (And that’s how the Fifth Republic was born.) De Gaulle’s job, he said, was to present to the world “a certain idea of France.”

Already Sarkozy has been more actively engaged in public affairs than his predecessors cared to be. He doesn’t merely present “a certain idea,” he presents comprehensive legislative packages. He hogs the limelight, making announcements and proposing policies and antagonizing opponents and generally seizing the duties that might be expected to fall to his ministers. He exercises in places where other people might see him, and his exercise of choice is jogging. In all of this, the French see a pernicious American influence.

Napoléon III: Role model
(And nobody ever called him “Napo l’Américain”)

Sarkozy’s love life may not be Love American Style, but it lacks a certain Gallic discretion. When he divorced his second wife, Cécilia, this fall, Sarkozy refused to talk to the press about it — storming out of an interview with 60 Minutes, for example. This satisfied a lot of French people, although some didn’t understand why the Sarkozys didn’t simply stay married, miserably, while carrying on affairs, discreetly, on the side. Which is the way French rulers have always done it.

Theirs had been a strange relationship to begin with. Nicolas cruised Cécilia when, as mayor of Neuilly, he officiated at her wedding to another man. (Apparently, character plays no part in voters’ decision-making in this country. No one seems to have asked: “This is how the guy wields executive power?” And the French elected him anyway.) Cécilia had left Sarkozy about a year before the elections, returning to his side as he sought the presidency primarily because, one assumed, she wanted to be first lady. Her
presence and frequent absences on the campaign trail last spring were closely watched. When election day came, she didn’t bother to vote, or to show up for his acceptance speech. She waited until the rentrée, the end of summer vacation, and divorced him. Hitherto press-shy herself, she granted interviews to glossy magazines to explain herself, but Nicolas kept his counsel.

In December, the bachelor Nicolas decided he liked the press well enough to tip off reporters that he was going on a date. To Disneyland. This was such a combination of “people press” and crass American commercialized culture that French people were stunned. And the object of Nicolas’ affections? A pop singer. More respectable newspapers, such as the left-wing Libération, debated whether to report the story at all.

(To be fair, Libération would be much happier if they never had to mention Sarkozy.)

Now Sarkozy is touting his behavior as a good thing. He wouldn’t want to skulk around the way François Mitterrand did, keeping a mistress and fathering a child. (Are these the only options?) He has indicated that he’ll marry, probably soon.

The future First Lady of France

Sarkozy’s lady love, Carla Bruni is pretty and interesting, which also plays against type for French first ladies (Danielle Mitterrand excepted). Daughter of a wealthy Italian family, she’s been a top model, and she writes her own lyrics; her sister, Valeria, is an accomplished film actress and director. But Carla gets around. She’s had affairs with everyone from Mick Jagger to Yannick Noah. It is almost as if, back in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter had announced he was going to divorce Rosalyn and marry Carly Simon.

The Chiracs: Not quite the same effect

In a broad sense, the Sarkozy-Bruni affair shows that France is moving forward into the 21st century: nothing about what’s going on could be mistaken for a reenactment of the life of Napoléon III, or even that of Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac. So it’s a kind of reform that Sarkozy is promoting, albeit not one of those he promised during the presidential campaign. A lot of French people are resisting this reform, as they resist any kind of reform. But thus far, nobody has gone on strike to protest it.