Paris is buzzing this week about a tale in a French magazine editor’s new book suggesting that French President Nicolas Sarkozy chewed him out over a humorous article referring to the first lady’s man-eating reputation. Sarkozy reportedly called the editor to say: “This article is filth, and I should smash your face in.”
In France as in America, such thuggery is normally outsourced to aides and assorted hired muscle—the Karl Roves and Rahm Emanuels. One can hardly imagine Barack Obama, for example, calling up Rush Limbaugh and threatening kick his ass for calling Michelle Obama “Mooshelle” for the zillionth time.
Coming right out and verbally knifing someone directly in the face is considered vulgar and unpresidential, and arguably one of the reasons for Sarkozy’s plummeting popularity. The French are used to politicians who suavely slip in the blade while administering a pat on the back. Emotional transparency isn’t taken as a sign of confidence when expressed by someone a mere twitch away from the potential to trigger nuclear annihilation. It’s interpreted as a sign of instability and lack of discipline.
World leaders in general are expected to focus on their higher calling and deflect any silliness that may distract them from the task. It’s one thing to respond to attacks of substance and policy, but quite another to get bogged down in personal trifles.
There are a few other things Sarkozy has attempted with varying degrees of success that would be amusing to imagine Obama imitating, however politically controversial:
—According to journalist Jonathan Alter’s book, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy told Michelle Obama that the Sarkozys kept the Queen waiting during an official visit while they got their sex on.
—When encountering a man who refused to shake his hand in a public crowd, rather than just ignoring the guy’s existence or trying to win him over with charisma and a smile, Sarkozy yelled, “Screw off, poor idiot!”
—When Sarkozy saw an opening for the titular head of Europe’s largest business district, he figured his fresh-faced, barely 20-something son, newly elected to his local council, would be the best bet for leading the way to economic prosperity. It would be a bit like putting Sasha and Malia in a position of symbolic responsibility at the Federal Reserve.
—During an informal media scrum earlier this year at a NATO summit, Sarkozy responded to a journalist’s question about the nature of his former role as budget minister in approving arms deals by accusing him of propagating rumor, and saying: “You are a pedophile, I’m convinced of it. I’ve talked with the secret services, but I won’t tell you which ones. I’ve met with someone, but I won’t tell you who, and we didn’t record it. But I have the intimate conviction that you are a pedophile.” I would pay good money to hear any U.S. President pull a stunt like this in a face-to-face sit-down with Brian Williams. Viewers would think they accidentally stumbled onto the latest incarnation of “To Catch A Predator.”
—In reference to his tanking popularity, Sarkozy once said that the French people are just jealous that he has a great wife.
—When Sarkozy heard that caravans of gypsies from the East were beginning their usual summer foray into France, he had them rounded up and sent back to their home countries on private flights with a few extra Euros shoved into their pockets. Imagine the reaction if Obama had a regular shuttle in place for illegal immigrants jumping the border from Mexico?
—During a nationwide strike this year over retirement reform, resulting in gas stations running dry, Sarkozy took off with his ex-supermodel wife on his newly blinged-out, taxpayer-funded Airbus for a personal vacation to the palace of his friend, autocrat King Mohammed of Morocco. And people are complaining about Obama’s holidays.
—Imagine if American Vice President Joe Biden had rung in the 2011 New Year with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and accepted free flights, lodging, and tourism for his entire family at the height of the Arab revolutions. Sarkozy’s No. 2, Prime Minister Francois Fillon, did exactly this—and is still well-entrenched in his position in Sarkozy’s government. Perhaps that’s just too dangerous a floodgate to open by calling for a resignation. There might not be anyone left to run the country if every minister guilty of similar acts were forced to walk the moral high plank.
Only time will tell whether the French people consider it all too much. This will ultimately depend on two things: Sarkozy’s ability to balance any perceived “vulgarity” with meaningful reform on issues of utmost importance to voters, and also the relative strength or lameness of any opposition candidate. Somewhere in Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resembles that remark—as he fine-tunes the guest list for his next “bunga bunga” sex orgy.