France finds its Tony

Observations on Sarkozy

Sarkozy is having his Blair moment. Anyone who was in Britain in 1997 will recognise the familiar mood of grinning optimism. There is much debate about how exciting and refreshing it is to have such a young leader (Sarko is 52). "Things Can Only Get Better" is not on repeat play on French radio, but it might as well be. Everyone in France is lyrical about the possibilities for change.

With the presidential vote barely counted, the campaign for this month's legislative elections have kicked off aggressively and immediately. The first round is on 10 June, the second on 17 June. Sarkozy needs strong support from parliament to carry out his ambitious programme of reform, and France is keen to give it to him. Early polls suggest 40 per cent is likely, which would give him a majority in the national assembly.

Even those vehemently anti-Sarko have been affected by the new mood. The voters who supported Bayrou but finally could not bring themselves to vote for Royal do not seem to bear animosity towards their default candidate. Quite the opposite. In one of Royal's voting heartlands in Aquitaine, the area around Bordeaux, Michel, a retired engineer, said he was proud to be one of the only three Sarkozy voters in a village of 100.

Previously a Bayrou voter, more than anything he is keen for swift change, even if it is not implemented by his candidate of choice: "Of course, I am not naturally Sarkoziste, you understand," he shrugged, "but I have come to understand that he is a formidable man."

While the mood lasts, the French press has nothing bad to say about Sarkozy. The only criticism he gets is that he is vain, and not particularly tall. He is slightly shorter than Napoleon and the expression "le Schtroumpf" (the Smurf) has surfaced.

A man who enjoys the good things of life, he is famously beautifully groomed. A flattering portrait has just been released and will hang in every mairie (town hall) in France. He poses next to the French flag and the flag of the European Union. Only four of the stars on the EU flag are visible: "An unconscious allusion to his taste for luxury hotels," columnist Jean-François Belge notes.

But even the President's vanity is turned into a plus point. During the campaign, a student paper in Lille conducted a widely quoted survey among hairdressers, who spoke earnestly and at length about the hopefuls' hairstyles. Sarkozy, insisted coiffeuse Fanny Rambure, was the only one with seriously presidential hair: "Ni trop moderne, ni trop classique."

No doubt this is a style compromise which all of France hopes will be the hallmark of a one-size-fits-all presidency. Sarkozy's hair, said Madame Rambure at the time, was ideal since it could be done in ten minutes.

If only the same could be said of his reforms.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent