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