Monday, May 07, 2007

Sarkozy Wins the Chance to Prove His Critics Wrong

Man in the News
Sarkozy Wins the Chance to Prove His Critics Wrong
Eric Bouvet/Getty Images
Nicolas Sarkozy greeted supporters at a party rally in Paris.

Published: May 6, 2007

PARIS, May 6 — Arrogant, brutal, an authoritarian demagogue, a “perfect Iago”: the president-elect of France has been called a lot of unpleasant things in recent months and now has five years to prove his critics wrong.

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Sarkozy’s Political Career

But what is certain is that Nicolas Sarkozy, who won Sunday’s runoff election, is one of the most polarizing figures to move into Élysée Palace in the postwar era. He is a whirling dervish of ideas who inspires hope and fear. Even many members of his own party, the Union for a Popular Movement, are holding their breath in anticipation of what his presidency may bring. “Other politicians don’t want to take risks, but he will take any risk,” said Brice Hortefeux, one of Mr. Sarkozy’s closest friends and political allies.

Mr. Sarkozy is also a bit of an outsider, the first son of an immigrant to rise to the French presidency in a country struggling to integrate second-generation immigrants, the grandson of a Sephardic Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism in a country still riddled with anti-Semitism and a graduate of France’s creaky state university system in a country long governed by technocrats trained at a handful of small, elite “great schools.”

He has always been nakedly ambitious, pragmatic, calculating and not beyond betrayal to reach his goals.

He is full of nervous energy, often rocking on his toes when not at the center of attention — a habit that sometimes makes him look taller than he is in photographs but otherwise draws attention to his small stature.

Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa was born in Paris on Jan. 28, 1955, the son of a minor Hungarian aristocrat who fled Communism after World War II. His mother was a law student, herself the daughter of an immigrant, a doctor who had arrived a generation earlier from Greece.

Mr. Sarkozy was the middle of three sons, but his father left the family when Mr. Sarkozy was 5, marrying twice more and fathering two more children. (The mother of those children, Christine de Ganay, went on to marry Frank G. Wisner II, the son of a celebrated spy and now the United States special envoy to Kosovo. Her son Oliver Sarkozy, Mr. Sarkozy’s half-brother, is the joint global head of UBS Investment Bank’s financial institutions group in New York.)
The abandonment marked the Sarkozy family, leaving them largely dependent on Mr. Sarkozy’s maternal grandfather, with whom the family lived in the 17th Arrondissement of Paris.

“I was fashioned by the humiliations of childhood,” Mr. Sarkozy told a magazine in 1994.

His mother finished her law degree, took a job and sent her sons to a private Catholic high school. The family later moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, an upscale suburb. Mr. Sarkozy eventually earned a law degree and became a member of Neuilly’s town council at 22.

But he got his real start in politics as a long-haired, bell-bottomed youth leader of the Union of Democrats for the Republic, a Gaullist party led by Jacques Chirac, who was serving his first term as prime minister.

Mr. Sarkozy’s brash manner and strong oratory caught Mr. Chirac’s eye and won him the patronage of other party leaders. Yet Mr. Sarkozy was not afraid to outmaneuver his elders when the chance arose.

He unexpectedly challenged Charles Pasqua, a senior Gaullist, for the job of Neuilly mayor in 1983, becoming the youngest mayor in France at 28.

The mayor’s job gave him his first national attention in 1993 when he negotiated to free schoolchildren taken hostage by a deranged man who called himself the Human Bomb. The man was eventually killed by the police, and the children were freed.

Mr. Sarkozy served as budget minister under Prime Minister Édouard Balladur, and betrayed his mentor Mr. Chirac by backing Mr. Balladur’s rival candidacy for president in 1995. When Mr. Chirac won, Mr. Sarkozy was shut out of the new administration.

He has had a strained relationship with Mr. Chirac since then, but his political skills were too powerful to ignore: Mr. Chirac brought him back into the government as interior minister in 2002.

Mr. Sarkozy has been unstoppable ever since, dominating the news and often stealing the spotlight from the president with his projects, including a high-profile law-and-order campaign. After a cabinet shuffle in 2004, he served as finance minister, overseeing the government bailout of the bankrupt engineering giant Alstom, a move that marked him as a “dirigiste,” or interventionist in the Gaullist tradition, in many eyes.

With his focus clearly on this year’s presidential elections, Mr. Sarkozy ran for and won the top job at the UMP, Mr. Chirac’s party, later that year. But in an unusual move, Mr. Chirac — who may still have harbored ambitions for a third term as president — forced Mr. Sarkozy to resign from the government in order to take the post.

Mr. Sarkozy was called back within months, though, as Mr. Chirac struggled to restore confidence in his administration after the humiliating rejection of a proposed European Union constitution in a referendum in May 2005.

In his second term as interior minister, Mr. Sarkozy was more aggressive than ever, threatening to “clean out” troubled neighborhoods plagued by petty crime and vowing to repatriate illegal immigrants.

Many people regarded the anticrime campaign as a calculated effort to win support from France’s far right in anticipation of his presidential bid.

The strategy appeared to backfire when second-generation immigrant youths rebelled, touching off weeks of arson and riots across the country. Again, Mr. Sarkozy turned the emergency to his advantage, taking the lead in quelling the unrest while other officials dithered. He emerged more powerful than ever.

Mr. Sarkozy’s personal life has been less successful than his public one: in 1996, he divorced his first wife, with whom he has two sons, and married Cécilia Ciganer-Albeniz, with whom he had another son.

For years, Ms. Sarkozy acted as Mr. Sarkozy’s closest aide, but she left him to have a very public affair with another man in 2005. The couple have since reconciled, but Ms. Sarkozy has been notably absent from her husband’s presidential campaign, fueling rumors that he will inhabit Élysée Palace alone

05/07: AOL News: Sarkozy's Message: I Won't Be a Poodle

Sarkozy's Message: I Won't Be a Poodle

.c The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) - To the world, President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy sends this message: France is back. Sarkozy said in his victory speech that his France will stand up against tyranny, dictators and fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women - a global vision more in line with President Bush than Jacques Chirac, who defied Washington over Iraq and has been criticized for cozy ties with authoritarian rulers.

By urging the United States to take the lead on fighting global warming, Sarkozy also signaled that an invigorated friendship with Washington would not mean subservience. His speech Sunday provided comfort to a populace worried that France's global voice is fading.

``The message was, 'Don't take me for granted,''' said Francois Heisbourg, a leading expert on French strategic and foreign policy. ``This was wise in terms of domestic policies but also in terms of the overall relationship. He was saying, 'I'm not going to be a poodle.'''

Sarkozy has won the label ``Sarko the American'' for openly admiring the get-up-and-go spirit in the United States, and indicated that he would toe a less-accommodating line toward the Arab world than his predecessors - whose close ties to the Middle East were rooted in France's past as a colonial power in the region.

Overall, though, his campaign gave short shrift to foreign policy, and his limited international experience has left many wondering how he will steer France in global affairs.

Sarkozy sought to quell that uncertainty in a speech barely 30 minutes after his electoral triumph.

France, he said, will stand alongside ``all those persecuted by tyranny, by dictatorships.'' He reached out to ``all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance, freedom, democracy and humanism.''

``France will not abandon women who are condemned to the burqa,'' the full head-and-body covering worn by women in Afghanistan and some Muslim women in Britain and elsewhere, he said. He did not elaborate on how that would translate into policy.

Sarkozy was a member of the government that instituted a law banning head scarves and other ``ostentatious'' religious apparel in classrooms.

In his speech, he appealed for all warring parties in the Middle East to ``overcome hate.''

``France will be at the side of the world's oppressed,'' he went on. ``That is the message of France, that is the identity of France, that is the history of France.''

While some of the language was reminiscent of Chirac - a fellow conservative and one-time Sarkozy mentor - the message itself was new.

``This is a new generation,'' Heisbourg said. ``It is a clear change. It is values rather than interests. He talked about what the Americans would call 'democracy promotion.'''

Chirac, too, spoke often of tolerance - but critics said that meant tolerating African dictators with whom France harbored longtime ties, and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Russia and China. Though he cajoled the Western community into intervening in Bosnia in 1995, Chirac later spoke more of cultural understanding than exporting Western values.

Both Chirac and Sarkozy say the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a mistake, and the president-elect has called for a deadline for a U.S. pullout. But Sarkozy has not let that dampen his enthusiasm for the trans-Atlantic relationship: He eagerly met with Bush in September, drawing criticism from a populace that has had a complex and sometimes bumpy relationship with the United States.

He has also indicated that he would oppose war against Iran, although analysts predict he will stake out a tough stance in the coming weeks in international efforts to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The most obvious shift is likely to be felt in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. Sarkozy has reached out to France's 5 million Muslims, but he also has been more open to Israel than Chirac; his support among French Jews was very strong.

``He has abandoned whatever remained of France's Arab policy,'' said Olivier Roy, a specialist on Islam at the National Center for Scientific Research. ``It will mean less activism in the Arab world. He has chosen a position like the American neo-conservative position.''

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed confidence that Israeli-French relations would improve after years of acrimony.

In Algeria, observers braced for possible tensions with Sarkozy. Algerian daily El Watan turned his speech on its head, saying Monday: ``The strong image of a humanist and democratic France will suffer a terrible blow with Nicolas Sarkozy.''

Roy said Sarkozy's burqa message was aimed as much at a domestic audience as a foreign one. ``It was a statement against fundamentalism,'' he said. It also came, he noted, as France is negotiating for the release of a French aid worker held hostage for more than a month by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy's initial foreign policy focus, however, is likely to stay closer to home, in aiming to mend a frayed European Union.

05/07/07 14:45 EDT

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