Sarko's American Idyll

In French one speaks of “les vacances.” This plural for “vacation” reflects cultural reality. The French take several holidays every year. Paris is a virtual ghost town for the entire month of August, so it was a sure bet that the new President of France and his family would get out of town too. Since one of the Presidential perks is access to an official residence on the Mediterranean, the French assumed the Sarkozys would avail themselves of that venue. It would be a step up from Arcachon, a city in south-west France famed for its oyster farms, where the Sarkozys have spent the previous three summers.

Instead the Sarkozys eschewed the oysters, nixed the Med, and opted for an American holiday. The family accepted an invitation to stay in a luxury villa on Lake Winnipesaukee, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. It is one of this nation’s oldest vacation spots and also happens to be an hour’s drive from the Bush family digs in Kennebunkport, Maine. The decision triggered a French national identity crisis.

“Sarkozy’s Holiday in US Raises Eyebrows,” read one French newspaper headline. Eyebrows my Aunt Fanny. As soon as the news hit the Rue, the French media began howling with righteous Gallic indignation. The newspaper, Le Monde, sniffed that Sarkozy had clearly embarked on a unilateral mission to improve Franco-American relations, strained since the Chirac government objected to the US invasion of Iraq. Shocking! Another paper wagged its editorial finger and said that a holiday in America proved Sarkozy’s critics were right to label him as an “Atlanticist.” Another commentator warned that by going to New Hampshire, Sarkozy “risked horrifying the historically anti-American French establishment.” The worst came from a commentator who predicted that — ALORS — Sarkozy wanted to become the French Margaret Thatcher.

The Socialists also fumed over this vacation. They decried Sarkozy’s attraction to American style displays of conspicuous consumption. The Left has taken every opportunity to publish a list of Sarkozy’s billionaire friends — their names and what they own. Naturally, they demanded to know who was paying for this trip. A spokesperson for Sarkozy dutifully reported that the family had taken a commercial flight to the US and that the owner of the villa, an American and a former Microsoft official, had offered them use of the place, which rents for $30,000 a week, as a gift. This generated more outrage. Who gives gifts like this to the President of France? What will they want in return? (A blueprint for an exceptionally safe and efficient French nuclear power plant might be nice.) One political observer lamented that, in the 100 days since he took office, Sarkozy had turned the elegant French Presidency into a sordid reality TV show.

Sarkozy has often commented that his family history has made him feel like an outsider in his own country. His Father was a minor aristocratic Hungarian refugee who escaped the Soviets by joining the French Foreign Legion. His French Mother’s heritage goes back to the medieval expulsion of the Jews from the south of France. Nicholas was five when his parents divorced. He grew up in the Paris home of his Jewish grandfather, a respected physician. Although he has a degree in law, Nicholas Sarkozy never attended the schools of the elite. In these institutions, French insiders routinely turn over the reigns of various powerful bureaucracies to the next generation. Small wonder that America’s ethos and freedoms from class restrictions would hold a fascination for this man.

His family history explains why Sarkozy interrupted his American idyll and flew back to France to lead mourners at the funeral of the 80-year-old retired Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean Marie Lustier. Like Sarkozy’s grandfather, Lustiger was a Jew who converted to Catholicism.

For the President of France to attend this particular funeral was a cultural marker. France is an avowed secular society and it does have its issues with Muslims, but government control over religious matters is standard practice. The French government deported Muslim Imams who were determined to be preaching hatred and terrorism in their mosques. Guidelines to measure the radicalism of an Imam were government created and enforced. The French government has approved religious studies curriculums in public schools. Muslim girls are not allowed to wear headscarves to classes. On the other hand, Christians are not allowed to wear crucifixes, not Jews their yarmulkes in any government-sponsored institution. France has a different way of really separating church and state.

On this side of the Atlantic, Wolfeboro’s town website posted a banner to “Welcome Nicolas Sarkozy!!” Winnepesaukee means "smile of the great spirit,” but there was no smile on the face of the French President just days after his arrival. A couple of photographers had gotten a little too close for Sarkozy’s comfort and a picture of him extending his arm in anger made the Drudge Report. On his radio show, Matt quipped — “Like they don’t have paparazzi in Paris? Ask Princess Di.”

After Sarkozy returned from his overnight trip to lead Cardinal Lustiger’s funeral, he made the quick trip to Kennebunkport. During their informal chat, President Bush, who has never vacationed outside the United States, made another of his infamous gaffes. He told Sarkozy he would consider taking a holiday in France if he could ride his mountain bike there. Would someone please tell the leader of the Free World about the French Alps? Mrs. Sarkozy spared herself this display of geographical ignorance and proffered menu of hot dogs. She called Laura Bush to beg off because she had a sore throat, but was seen that same day, in Wolfeboro, shopping with her children. The proprietor of the local cheese shop had told reporters he hoped she would drop in. You cannot make this up.

When they returned to Paris, the blogs heated up again. Sarkozy promised the French that if they loved Jackie Kennedy Onassis, they would love Cecillia. But her presumed snub of the Bushes was not well received in the French Press. It is not that the French like Bush, but this exhibition of bad manners was judged an embarrassment to the nation. Go figure.

Now that he is back in France, Sarkozy is facing some interesting challenges. He gave in to pressure and will allow an inquiry on his dealings with the government of Libya. He denies that there was any connection between the release of Bulgarian nurses — being held on charges that they spread AIDS with contaminated needles — and the sale to Libya of anti tank missiles and nuclear technology which is supposed to be used to desalinate water. Mrs. Sarkozy led the vanguard on this exchange. The Unions have promised to block Sarkozy’s announced reforms which might cut into the French multiple vacation culture and the endless array of government subsidies and benefits.

Still, a recent poll indicated that 64% of the French public approves of Sarkozy’s hyper- Presidential pace and his flair for the dramatic. His fellow citizens seem more concerned about whether or not he can keep up the pace he has set for himself so far.