Time to grow up, advisers tell Sarkozy

By John Lichfield

Almost four years after taking office, President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to become the President of France. That is to say, he has been instructed by his advisers that his hopes of re-election next spring will increase enormously if he acts in a more "presidential" manner.

No more shouting back at insults from members of the public; no more emotional outbursts at press briefings; no more political ambulance-chasing of incidents in the domestic news.

Instead, the Elysee Palace has let it be known to French commentators that the President is going to revert to something like the avuncular, aloof approach of his predecessors. In other words, Un Nouveau Sarkozy est arrivé. He plans, in theory, to leave the day- to-day government to his Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, and the nuts and bolts of economic policy to Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde. He will concentrate on his role as "President of the World" - or president until the end of this year of the G8 and G20 groups of economically powerful nations.

The French press was unanimous in its verdict. Sarkozy was trying, with some success, to "re-presidentialise" himself.

He admitted mistakes on Tunisia. He conceded that his ambitious plans for regulating the world financial system might not succeed. A president who once made boastful Promises to "make France the most competitive nation in the world" agreed that "concrete results might be difficult to obtain".

Later he mingled with journalists and spoke not of himself, but of literature and the cinema. Not being interested in highbrow subjects is one of the accusations of "unpresidential" behaviour levelled at Sarkozy.

He said he had been reading a book by French novelist Emmanuel Carrere, called Other Lives Than My Own. He said that the novel, about a friendship between male and female judges who beat cancer, "transforms the way you look at the world".

He and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, he said, often watched movies at home in the evenings. He loved Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. He drew the line, he said, at Pier-Paolo Pasolini's movie Theorem (1968), about the sexual antics of the Milanese bourgeoisie. He also revealed that he was "learning Italian". He added, jokingly, he "needed to understand what Carla said when she gets angry with me".

All in all, it was a rather charming and personable performance, worthy of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. The only problem is Sarkozy has made at least three previous conscious attempts to be "more presidential".

None has lasted long.

The stakes are enormous. Sitting French presidents, like their US counterparts, are difficult to dislodge. But with low approval ratings, Sarkozy may need whatever protection his presidential aura can offer next spring. So, can he keep up the new, more statesmanlike and aloof image? The signs are not good. The day after his press conference he gave a bumptious, self-praising, private talk to a club of multimillionaire backers of his party.

Later, he called for tougher treatment of repeat offenders after a young woman was murdered near Nantes by a man with a long criminal record.

The law on the subject was already changed, at Sarkozy's insistence, a year ago. A case of political recidivism?


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