Love Gained, Love Lost

Enfin, the rumors confirmed! Last weekend, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France married his singer-supermodel sweetheart, Carla Bruni, in a 20-minute civil ceremony at the Elysees Palace, the French White House. A city official performed the service. The bridal party consisted of family members plus one or two fashionable friends. Apparently the bride wore white.

Somehow, though, the first French presidential nuptials since 1931 were not an entirely joyous national event. Though a few people tried to say something nice about the wedding — “C’est formidable,” declared Bernadette Chirac, ex-first lady of France — the Sarkozy-Brunis woke up the following morning to news that the nation did not approve: Already on a downward trajectory, support for Sarkozy’s presidency has plunged. From a high of 67 percent last July, Sarkozy’s support in France had dropped to 54 percent in January. As of yesterday, this number had slipped to 41 percent, with more than three-quarters of the French pronouncing themselves annoyed by their head of state’s very public private life, in polling done before and after the presidential nuptials. For a country that treated news of Sarkozy’s divorce last year with a shrug of Gallic indifference, this is incredible.

True, this news did follow a flurry of new photographs of Bruni — sorry, Madame la Présidente — in various stages of undress (including some suspiciously recent pictures of the new first lady wearing nothing but black leather boots and a wedding ring). Nevertheless, I don’t believe that a hitherto undiscovered French prudishness is driving the surge of popular annoyance. The fact is that the private peccadilloes of a public figure loom largest when they seem to confirm his or her other character flaws. The Monica Lewinsky affair hurt Bill Clinton because it reminded everyone of the president’s reputation for political slipperiness. Sarkozy’s whirlwind romance is damaging because it reminds everyone that his public behavior is no less wacky and unpredictable than his private life.

Certainly this is true on the international stage, and especially in Europe, where diplomacy normally moves at the sedate pace of a Viennese waltz and where Sarkozy’s penchant for whirling off in all directions at once is, shall we say, unsettling. Indeed, “controlling Sarko,” as one Scandinavian politician put it to me, has now become a task for the entire European diplomatic corps. At times this requires straightforward damage control: The French president seems, for example, to be obsessed by Turkey, whose accession to the European Union he wants to prevent at all costs. Allegedly he reads his foreign ministry’s Turkey dossiers personally and intervenes to prevent any language suggesting possible Turkish membership from appearing in any official document. Since barring Turkey isn’t actually E.U. policy yet, others are left to pick up the pieces.

But his colleagues have enough work just keeping track of him. Since becoming president, Sarkozy has opened a new military base in the United Arab Emirates, conducted (unsuccessful) peace negotiations in Lebanon, invited Moammar Gaddafi to Paris (where the Libyan leader cheerfully told the press he had not discussed any human rights issues with his French host) and promoted French nuclear energy technology while simultaneously pushing Iran to halt its own nuclear development. So far he’s visited some 20 countries. One French newspaper gleefully quoted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia declaring that “President Sarkozy resembles a dashing and high-spirited thoroughbred, but like all thoroughbreds, he should submit to be reined in to find his balance.”

Sarkozy’s domestic policies reach in multiple directions, too. One bemused British columnist records that the French president has, since coming to office, “decided to launch a ‘Marshall plan’ for the suburbs, to ban advertisements on state television, to found 10 universities, to reform the 35-hour week, to protect French banks from sovereign wealth funds . . . and to tax mobile phones.” Sarkozy has also asked the economist Amartya Sen to find a way of including “quality of life” in French statistics, the philosopher Edgar Morin to outline a renaissance in the “politics of civilization” and the socialist Jacques Attali to come up with “300 decisions for changing France.”

Maybe this whirlwind of hyperactivity will eventually add up to something; certainly it makes a welcome change from the somnolence of the later Chirac years. But it definitely provides an uneasy context for a public romance. If Sarkozy were a staid and predictable politician, his tabloid love affair and abrupt marriage might be joyously embraced by a dewy-eyed nation. In present circumstances, it looks like one more madcap adventure to add to the growing list.

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