Nicolas Sarkozy told to grow up
Almost four years after taking office, President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to become the President of France.
That is to say, he has been instructed by his advisers that his hopes of re-election next spring will increase enormously if he acts in a more "presidential" manner.
No more shouting back at insults from members of the public; no more emotional outbursts at press briefings; no more conspicuous attachment to shiny objects; no more political ambulance-chasing of incidents in the domestic news.
Instead, the Elysée Palace has let it be known to French journalists and political commentators that the President is going to revert to something like the avuncular, aloof approach of his predecessors. In other words, Un Nouveau Sarkozy est arrivé.
He plans, in theory, to leave the day-to-day government to his Prime Minister, François Fillon, and the nuts and bolts of economic policy to his Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde. He will concentrate, in public at least, on his role as "President of the World", or president until the end of this year of the G8 and G20 groups of economically powerful nations.
After a press conference on Monday – only his third at the Elysée Palace since he took office in 2007 -- the French press was unanimous in its verdict. Mr Sarkozy was trying, with some success, to "re-presidentialise" himself.
He talked only on international subjects. He went through the whole meeting without haranguing or insulting a single journalist. He admitted mistakes (on Tunisia). He conceded that his ambitions plans for regulating the world financial system might not succeed. A President who once made boastful promises to "seek growth with my teeth" and "make France the most competitive nation in the world" agreed that "concrete results might be difficult to obtain".
Afterwards, he mingled with journalists and spoke not of himself but of literature and the cinema. Not being interested in high-brow subjects is one of the accusations of "unpresidential" behaviour levelled at Mr Sarkozy.
He said that he had been reading a book by the French novelist Emmanuel Carrère, called Other lives than my own. The President said that the novel, about a friendship between male and female judges who defeat cancer, "transforms the way that you look at the world".
He and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, he said, often watched movies together at home in the evenings. He loved Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. He drew the line, he said, at Pier-Paolo Pasolini's movie Theorem (1968), about the sexual antics of the Milanese bourgeoisie.
He also revealed that he was "learning Italian". He added, jokingly, that he "needed to understand what Carla said when she gets angry with me".
All in all, it was a rather charming and personable performance, worthy of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, the man whose style and legacy Mr Sarkozy has always sought to repudiate. The only problem is that Mr Sarkozy has made at least three previous conscious attempts to be "more presidential". None has lasted for long.
The stakes are potentially enormous. Sitting French presidents, like American presidents, are difficult to dislodge. As head of state, not just head of government, they take on some of the monarchical aura of their office.
With Mr Sarkozy in the low thirties in the approval ratings, he may need whatever protection his presidential aura can offer next spring. From the beginning, however, he has enthusiastically joined the rough and tumble of everyday politics and acted as de facto Prime Minister, not President.
Can he keep up the new, more statesmanlike and aloof image? The signs are not good. The day after his press conference he gave a bumptious, self-praising, private talk – immediately leaked – to a club of multimillionaire backers of his party. Later the same day, he called for tougher treatment of repeat offenders after a young woman was murdered near Nantes, allegedly by a man who had a long criminal record. The law on the subject was already changed, at Mr Sarkozy's insistence, a year ago. A case of political recidivism?
The President's fury
* Speaking about immigration in April 2006, Mr Sarkozy said: "If people don't like being in France they only have to leave. We've had more than enough of always having the feeling that we must apologise for being French."
* When the French President lost his cool with a man who refused to shake his hand at a farming fair in 2008, he reportedly said "Get lost then you bloody idiot, just get lost!" It is understood the phrase loses in translation.
* When accused of saying youths on poor estates were "scum" and should be "cleaned out with a power hose" in 2005, Mr Sarkozy said: "I regret nothing."
* At a press conference in November, accused of receiving kickbacks from arms deals with Pakistan, Mr Sarkozy retaliates against a journalist: "And you! I've no evidence against you. But it would seem you're a paedophile."