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A president they loved to hate

France may not miss Nicolas Sarkozy now,it may never pine for his return. But it will feel his absence

Written by New York Times | Published: May 8, 2012 3:18 am

France may not miss Nicolas Sarkozy now,it may never pine for his return. But it will feel his absence
ROSECRANS BALDWIN

France is glad to be rid of Nicolas Sarkozy,who lost the country’s 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. Sarkozy’s 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 they’d be perceived. He held a lavish dinner on the night he was first elected. He took a vacation on a wealthy supporter’s yacht. Soon after he divorced his wife he dashed toward celebrity,marrying a supermodel after taking her on a date to Disneyland Paris.

But Sarkozy’s 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. He’s 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 wasn’t a gourmand,academic or wonk. He loved America,unabashedly,and wasn’t 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 he’s gone. The vote wasn’t for Hollande,but against his opposite — a rebuff of Sarkozy’s 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 You’re Bringing Me Down’

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