Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Sarkozy: Immigrant's son stalks Elys�e: printer friendly version

Sarkozy: Immigrant's son stalks Elys�e: printer friendly version

Sarkozy: Immigrant's son stalks Elysée
Charles Lambroschini IHT
Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Nicolas Sarkozy

PARIS Nicolas Sarkozy's secret is that he has no secrets. First as President Jacques Chirac's interior minister, and now as finance minister, he is popular because he dares to speak the truth.

Flaunting his ambition, Sarkozy is careful not to conceal his desire for power behind the conventional refrain of politicians who go on about the public interest but think only of their personal careers. Chirac hasn't announced whether he will seek a third term as president, but already Sarkozy has challenged his boss by proclaiming his intention to take the Elysée in 2007.

The finance minister intends to convince the French public that Chirac, who will then be 75, has done his time and that the baton should be passed to a new political generation. Sarkozy, at 49, likes to think of himself as that generation's most brilliant champion.

The French adore him. But they applaud not only his boldness. They also cheer his strategy of setting easily recognizable priorities. At the Interior Ministry, Sarkozy's goal was to give the man in the street a feeling of security. In response to the rising tide of violence that France's intellectuals, shut away in their trendy neighborhoods, continued to ignore, the minister found words that went right to the heart of the average Frenchman: "Fear is eating away at your life."

Sarkozy filled the prisons, declaring open season on the most aggressive criminals, and emptied the police stations, obliging police officers to spend more time on patrol. There was a political corollary to this public relations exercise: He successfully countered Jean-Marie Le Pen. This champion of the far right, posing as the last line of defense against illegal immigrants, had managed to eliminate the Socialist candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to become Chirac's opponent in the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

At the Ministry of Finance, nothing counts for Sarkozy except making sure the books are balanced again. He has obliged other cabinet ministers to reduce their appetites. He has rushed to Brussels to swear that in 2005, France will keep its promise to bring its public deficit down from 4 percent to 3 percent of gross domestic product, as mandated by the rules that govern the euro.

At the same time, the public appreciates the suppleness of Sarkozy the tactician, who always opens several fronts at once in order to avoid encirclement by the Socialist enemy. As "France's No. 1 cop," Sarkozy was very careful not to play only the card of repression.

Skilled at defying expectations, he even took it upon himself to fulfill promises the left hadn't dared keep. He abolished, for example, the "double penalty" under which a foreign-born convict who had lived most of his life in France was obliged to return to his country of origin once he had served his sentence.

Sarkozy has taken an identical approach at the Finance Ministry, where he has had to transform himself into an accountant. In Paris he defends financial rigor in the name of market forces - fascinated by the efficiency of the United States, this Gaullist is actually an admirer of the "Anglo-Saxon" model. But Sarkozy reverts to the state-control ways of "Old Europe" when he is talking to the European Commission in Brussels. He has refused to break up Alstom, despite the French conglomerate's catastrophic results, because of a desire to preserve what he has called a "national tool."

In fact, Sarkozy seduces because he is out of the ordinary. In a country where personal identity is often measured in terms of how deep your roots go in the French provinces, he is exemplary for the opposite reason, having passed in a single generation from being the son of an immigrant to being a minister of the republic. His father, Pal Nagy Bocsa y Sarkozy, who belonged to a family of Hungarian aristocrats ruined by the communists, became French by enlisting in the French Foreign Legion.

In contrast to most new citizens, who choose to keep a low profile in order to fit in more quickly, Sarkozy emphasizes his difference. Especially when he wants to shut up Le Pen. On a television program last year, Sarkozy flung this at the far right leader: "According to the nationality law that you're demanding, I would never have been able to acquire French citizenship."

To avoid becoming a target, he shoots first. Aware that as soon as declared his candidacy for the presidency, a rumor campaign would have added a Jewish maternal grandfather to his Hungarian heritage, Sarkozy insists on being open about his origins - especially in his meetings with the Jewish community. At the very moment when anti-Semitism was rising to the surface under cover of criticism of Israel's policies, he publicly denounced racist incidents - in contrast to the left, which, until it lost power in 2002, preferred to discreetly ignore them in order not to ruffle the waters.

For Sarkozy, the French republic - which has counted among its most highly regarded leaders Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France - has no right to stay silent when a Jew is assaulted in the street or insulted in an electoral campaign. The French like this kind of plain speaking, too.

Finally, the French appreciate that Sarkozy, who has known as many defeats as triumphs, is laced with scars from political life. In the 1995 presidential elections, he chose to back Edouard Balladur, but Chirac was elected. In 1999, he had to abandon the leadership of the Gaullist party after its candidates performed disastrously in the European elections. After the 2002 presidential election, and again after the regional elections this year, he thought he would be named prime minister. Both times, Chirac turned down this long-toothed carnivore in favor of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, known as a bridge-builder.

Sarkozy has succeeded so well that all his mistakes seem to have been forgiven. But for a long time his public image was negative. He was seen as jumpy rather than energetic, always obsessed with his race to the top. And as an opportunist, changing his convictions in response to the opinion polls. And as a traitor, ready to kill his "fathers" - Charles Pasqua, from whom, at the age of just 28, Sarkozy stole the mayoralty of the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly, and Jacques Chirac who, disappointed after having taken Sarkozy for the son he never had, is especially keen not to see Sarkozy succeed him as president.

Some politicians are popular for what they are, others for what they do. But the chances are that one day the French will have to come back to this question with no answer: Is Sarkozy a star of politics, or only of public relations?

Charles Lambroschini is deputy editor of Le Figaro. This was translated from the French by the IHT.


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