The Son of a Hungarian Immigrant, the Interior Minister Has Taken France by Storm. Can He Now Push Chirac Aside?

By Lawday, David | New Statesman (1996), January 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Son of a Hungarian Immigrant, the Interior Minister Has Taken France by Storm. Can He Now Push Chirac Aside?


Lawday, David, New Statesman (1996)


France has been mugged. It has yielded, what is more, with a shudder of satisfaction. The visibly injured part of the nation is limited to members of the French government. The entire cabinet, that is, except for Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior. For "Sarko" is the mugger. By all appearances, lie holds France in the palm of his hand in 2004.

Considering how hard the conquering George Bush has found it to manoeuvre France into anything resembling docility, Sarko's feat is astonishing. There seems little that lie can't put right. Give him crime and he'll reduce it dramatically. Give him road safety and he'll curb the carnage. Give him prostitution and he'll push it off the street. Give him Jean-Marie Le Pen and he'll thrash the monster. Give him immigration and he'll make most people feel a little better. Give him insecurity and he'll make France secure. Sarko is very short, historically no bar to greatness in France, and very driven. For the past year, he appears to many ordinary Frenchmen to have been running the country on his own, and the public has responded largely with relief and admiration.

Sarko is near shameless about his political ambitions. With its shades of Barman and maybe Napoleon (hear "Boney"), the abbreviation became national jargon during 2003. For all his energy and sleek, dark hair, he is not, at nearly 49, the youngest of young men in a hurry. But he comes across as new, indeed modern, in the company of rivals who hover inconspicuous, waiting decades before stretching for the highest rung. Sarko is always at full, impatient stretch. His candour shocks. Make way, oldsters.

The interior minister's ambition constantly spills forth on national TV. You can't blame the networks for indulging a man who balloons viewer ratings. Whether commercials or Sarko get more airtime in France seems a close-run thing. People are curious about him. Does he dream of being president when shaving? The answer comes in assured, measured tones: "Yes, and not only when shaving." Before Christmas, he publicly owned up to seeking Jacques Chirac's job long before it falls vacant; then he called for a two-term limit on the presidency. There was no missing the tilt at the 71-year-old Chirac, who is permitted under current law to go on seeking re-election as often as he wants (you may safely count on him at least contemplating a third term in office, of five years). "When the mandate has no limit," Sarko pointedly observed, "it is only too human to want to endure."

Chirac is not an unpopular president; he stood up manfully to Bush over Iraq, gaining much world credit. But two in three French voters say they don't want him in the Elysee Palace after he completes his second term. And more than one in two voters (52 per cent) tell opinion pollsters they favour Sarkozy for president in the next election, still three years off.

With these figures in support, Sarko's gall grows. A teetotaller who keeps fit by hard cycling, he gravitates by some advanced homing device to just where a popular leader should locate himself for maximum effect. Whenever a tragic/stirring/miraculous event occurs that moves the French nation, he is on the spot before government rivals have pulled out their TGV timetables. Poor Chirac puffs to reach the scene of the latest flood disaster before Sarko is pulling his waders off and moving on somewhere else. A French interior minister has wide remit. Responsibility for the police and security allows him to touch most bases in French society. Eve n under an unthrusting interior minister, this can upset cabinet colleagues. With Sarko in charge, the irritation boils over.

What distinguishes Sarkozy from the classic French high politico is what he is not: he isn't a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (Ena), which turns out princes of the state; he isn't a product of any of the other grandes ecoles that bestow an Oxbridge gloss; he didn't inherit an electoral fiefdom from the family; he isn't the son of a government grandee, or even of an MP or senator. …

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