Meet the president, our perfect CEO

A business culture has overtaken the civil service ethos in France plc

France no longer has a president, it has a CEO. And a large majority of the French, who have become shareholders in a medium-sized multinational company called France, are happy. A recent poll showed 64 per cent loving it and even 53 per cent of Socialist sympathisers content. That a business culture has overtaken the civil service ethos in France plc, and a marketing blitzkrieg overrun democratic debate, doesn't shock anyone. The French like CEO Sarkozy's management style: act tough, talk rough, be omnipresent and never apologise.

Act tough. Having convinced most of the existing shareholders to give him their trust and a mandate to run the national firm for five years, France's président directeur général has started by downsizing: 22,700 employees, once known as civil servants, won't be replaced in 2008.

Three months ago, with a programme of reforms designed to signal a break with old-style management, France's CEO went on to do what he'd said he would do, asking the members of his board, once known as ministers, to work day and night. Overtime work, he promised, would be exempt from tax. The board's task: to prepare bills and submit them to the shareholders' representatives, previously known as MPs, before the summer holidays. Among the ready-made bills drawn up by the ambitious CEO were tougher laws for repeat offenders, liberalisation of the universities, restriction of the right to strike and scrapping taxes on the super-rich.

For three months, his board worked like mad. Parisian flâneurs walking their dogs late at night could see anglepoise lights still burning at the ministry of justice. The former business lawyer-turned-justice minister Rachida Dati often didn't leave her office until after 3am. She and her colleagues on the board had been appointed to get results, fast. Fine by them: Sar kozy's team is tough. However, they are reported to have gasped when their CEO told them at their last meeting before the three-week summer break that they should brace themselves for an even busier rentrée. Work yet harder? Better ask the cyclists of the Tour de France for advice.

Talk rough. During Sarkozy's first three months in office, those of his ministers who had made their careers in the private sector (including Dati, Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, and Jean-Louis Borloo, the minister for sustainable development) naturally applied the business ethos to work relations within the firm. Some ministers had no previous experience of civil service. At the ministry of justice, Dati's colleagues resigned one after the other. Five senior civil servants in total left her department within weeks of her appointment. None explained why or complained publicly; all dip lomatically cited "personal reasons" for their departure. In private, as quoted by the daily Est Républicain, civil servants confided that they weren't used to "being shouted at" all the time.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Ministers were simply aping their CEO, whose abrasive management style is well known. Azouz Begag, Chirac's former equal opportunities minister, wrote in a book published last April that, as interior minister, Sarkozy had once threatened him: "I'm going to smash your face." More recently, two bewildered American photographers had watched as Sarkozy, in shorts and NYPD-style sunglasses, jumped aboard their boat and seized one of their cameras.

Be omnipresent. Easier to achieve when the big players in the media are personal friends or godfathers to your children. Friends will discreetly suggest to editors and journalists certain viewpoints, such as comparing the Sarkozys to the Kennedys. On the night of his election, Nicolas Sarkozy told close friends: "You loved Jackie Ken nedy. You're going to adore Cécilia Sarkozy."

The "Pravda-isation of the media", as the political commentator Daniel Schneidermann puts it, is such that since then, the Sarkozys, when pictured in magazines, have been frequently shown alongside images of the Kennedys.

Even on holiday, invited by millionaire business friends to relax at a villa in New Hampshire, CEO Sarkozy knows how to remain in the limelight. Here he breaks his jogging to give a eulogy of a recently deceased jazz musician, there he decides to go back to Paris for two hours to attend the funeral of a French cardinal at Notre-Dame, before returning to the US just in time to lunch with the Bush family.

Never apologise. When asked about having his holidays paid for by millionaire business friends, he replied: "I won't apologise. French taxpayers haven't paid a penny for my holidays," skilfully eluding the question of who did. When asked about the release of Bulgarian nurses and the signing of business contracts with Libya, he said: "There was a problem which needed resolving, I resolved it. As for the contracts, am I being reproached for giving jobs to the French?" - shrewdly sidestepping the question of the contracts' timing.

But the French don't mind. For the moment.

Agnès Poirier is the author of "Touché" (Phoenix, £6.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in The most important protest of our time

2007-08-20