Sarkozy's defeat is a rejection of the Republique de Bling

Sarkozy's vulgar desire to party put a curse on his presidency.

By this time next week, it looks likely Nicolas Sarkozy will be out of a job and – if he is to be believed – French politics for good. But his defeat is a rejection of personality, not policies. If Sarkozy loses to François Hollande, it will be the end of the brash Republique de Bling, not the end of the Republique de Grandeur.

For many French people, between 2007 and 2012 Sarkozy betrayed Charles de Gaulle’s Republic, replacing its grandeur with a far brasher alternative. The rot set in that fateful evening in May 2007 at Fouquet’s restaurant when he celebrated winning the Presidential election. Sarkozy and his rich friends dined ostentatiously; all the high fives revealing an overabundance of Rolexes, as the bottles of champagne emptied. He later spent a short holiday on the Paloma, the yacht of his friend Vincent Bolloré, one of the richest businessmen in France. Sarkozy had said in early 2007 that, if he won the presidency, he would spend some time meditating or gathering his thoughts, perhaps in a monastery. The vulgar desire to party instead put a curse on his presidency that he could not shake off throughout his five-year term.

What on earth had Sarkozy done? He seemed, overnight, to have turned the presidency into a Hello! magazine feature article: I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here meets the elected monarchy of one of the most cultivated, protocol-conscious and historically sensitive countries on the planet. He noisily divorced his wife and even more noisily remarried a glamorous model. As well as tripling his own salary, he gave big tax breaks to the rich. One member of the public in a crowd received a less than Presidential put-down: "casse-toi, pauv’ con," he said, which translates as something akin to "fuck off, you poor twat!". And so the list went on. The President’s behaviour soon saw the French begin to shudder with embarrassment and disapproval.

In contrast to de Gaulle, le grand Charles (1.92 cms), it was felt Le petit Nicolas (1.65 cms) had lowered the tone of the presidency. The implications extended beyond politics however. The grandeur of the presidency and its maintenance has an essential political function in France – it binds the Republic together. Undermining the Presidency meant Sarkozy had undermined the Republic itself.

This campaign has revealed that both the President’s campaign and that of his main rival are very aware Sarkozy’s personality will be the deciding factor in this election. Sarkozy has already shown regret for his ostentatious victory celebration at the last election and Hollande is quick to point out flaws in his character.

The Fifth Republic is about ’character’, but in a far more complex way than in, say, the United States, where ‘character’ is akin to ‘mettle’, courage, and thoughtfulness. Sarkozy has been criticised for his policies, his handling of the economy (although his handling of the worst recession for at least a generation has, in fact, been rather good), and his hyperactivity. But the truly damning aspect of his presidency has been the perception of him by the French as: unstable, vulgar, vain, inconsistent, shallow, unreliable, neurotic, and as possibly dangerous for democracy. It is this which will be Sarkozy’s downfall if the polls are to believed, not his policies but his personality and the flash, vulgar Republic he half-knowingly embodied.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

Getty Images.
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.