France may not miss Nicolas Sarkozy now,it may never pine for his return. But it will feel his absence
France is glad to be rid of Nicolas Sarkozy,who lost the countrys presidency in a runoff election this weekend to the Socialist candidate,François Hollande. He was ineffective in office,and prone to gaffes in public.
But the French will miss him more than they realise. Beneath the boorishness,the cringe-worthy comments,he transformed how France thinks of the presidency,just as he altered what America thinks of the French.
Heads of France lead from a palace,and traditionally they retire to a cloud. Sarkozys predecessors,François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac,float above the country,disembodied and untouchable. Their reputations are fixed: Chirac is beloved despite a conviction for embezzling public funds,while Mitterrand is remembered as dignified,despite the mistress and secret daughter he hid.
Sarkozy could not have been more different. He occupied the throne as a man of flesh,neither celestial nor sovereign. He had earthly desires and prejudices,and often seemed blind to how theyd be perceived. He held a lavish dinner on the night he was first elected. He took a vacation on a wealthy supporters yacht. Soon after he divorced his wife he dashed toward celebrity,marrying a supermodel after taking her on a date to Disneyland Paris.
But Sarkozys flaws also made him accessible. He was brash,emotional and candid,blunt as the cigars he loved to smoke. And he was vain,so vain. Sarkozy is short,and he was aware that his countrymen would hold it against him. In photographs with his taller wife,he often took the high ground; occasionally he wore stacked heels.
French politicians draw from an elite,unvaried cadre again,with Sarkozy an exception. Hollande,Monsieur Normal, is,in this way,a reversion to the mean. Hes calm and placid and dislikes confrontation. He will embody France as no one outside France may want it to appear: bland,elitist,aloof.
In fact,Sarkozy was never particularly French as we know it. He wasnt a gourmand,academic or wonk. He loved America,unabashedly,and wasnt ashamed to say so. And we,to the extent that we could ever love a French president,took to him. For five years,we had a man in Europe we could have elected ourselves. Now hes gone. The vote wasnt for Hollande,but against his opposite a rebuff of Sarkozys policies,but also his singularity,his vanity and naughtiness. France and America have a history of mutual loathing and longing. Americans still dream of Paris; Parisians still dream of the America they find in the movies of David Lynch. It will take time for both countries to adjust to a new leader,a new image.
But the French will have it worse. They may not miss Nicolas Sarkozy now; they may never pine for him to return. They will,however,feel his absence. When an object we love to hate is removed,then love is lost,too.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris,I Love You but Youre Bringing Me Down
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