Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Entering my name in the visitors' book at the British Embassy in Paris last week, I saw, a couple of lines above, the signature 'Tony Blair'. The ex-leader is in France a lot just now. Tony is very fond of President Nicolas Sarkozy, and vice versa.

Tony is making it increasingly clear that he would like to be the new 'President of Europe', and Sarko is urging his candidacy. Mr Blair is admired by many in France, and the style of the new President owes a good deal to the man who invented New Labour. Sarkozy came in promising 'La rupture' -- the break with the stuffy and sclerotic politics of the last quarter century. As with Blair, part of this break is a call for reform, and part of it is a matter of image. It is exciting to watch but, after eight months of Sarkozy, it is in crisis.

One of the Blair lessons is the importance of informality. Sarko is a great one for bear-hugs and jogging and open-necked shirts.

In a country much more preoccupied with linguistic correctness than our own, the new President deliberately speaks 'bad' French.

When he told a breathless press conference in January about the state of his relationship with Carla Bruni, he said, demotically, that, 'Avec Carla, c'est du serieux.' He goes in for what the French call 'pipolisation'. At first it seemed refreshingly brash. He told the public that 'If you liked Jackie Kennedy, you'll love Cecilia Sarkozy.' But then Cecilia and he got divorced, and now the public are being invited instead to love Carla, whom he married, without benefit of banns, a fortnight ago. People began to notice -- another leaf from the Blair book -- that personal announcements seemed to be made to bury bad news. Sarkozy's divorce was splashed on the day of a general strike, and the controversy about his red-carpet welcome for Colonel Gaddafi was curtailed by his first public outing with Carla (to Disneyland). Last week, Le Nouvel Observateur complained of 'une trop longue séquence people [sic]'. And just as Blair was attacked for his Campbells and Mandelsons, so Sarko has his Claude Guéant, known as 'the Cardinal', and Henri Guaino, his special adviser, who announce departmental measures in the media before the ministers responsible have even heard of their existence.

On my first day, I called on Valéry Giscard D'Estaing, the former president. In the course of our conversation, M. Giscard, who has all the air of distinction which an Englishman naturally associates with the French presidency, explained that presidential protocol in France has a lineal descent from the very strict and elaborate rules of the Spanish court in the 17th century, through the French monarchy, to the present day. It was a reminder of the well-known fact that the French think of their presidency as a continuation of monarchy by other means. This makes the style of Sarkozy an even more controversial matter than that of Tony Blair ever was for us. If 'L'état, c'est moi', the nature of the 'moi' comes under greater scrutiny. Sarko's informality has some difficult consequences. Some of the journalists at his press conferences now 'tutoyer' him (call him by the intimate second person singular), which diminishes the necessary distance. Sometimes he deals rudely with journalists, which reduces him to their level. 'I'm sorry, you didn't answer my question', said one reporter. 'We're not in a police station, ' snapped Sarko.

And then there are the strange companions.

On becoming President, Sarkozy announced that he was off to a monastery to think deep thoughts about his new role, but then suddenly changed his mind and commandeered the yacht of a big businessman called Vincent Bolloré and shot off to the Mediterranean. …

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