May 9, 2007
By MAUREEN DOWD
Beauty has been chased off by the Beast.
Now France waits to see just how feral and domineering Nicolas Sarkozy will be.
The lovely Ségolène Royal — more phenomenon than politician — ran a maternal, Manichaean campaign painting her intense, Napoleon-sized opponent as an immoral political animal and a brute whose election would spark riots and “a sort of civil war.”
The luminous Sego did not even deign to address the “dark” Sarko by name, either in the debate or in her concession speech Sunday night.
Cartoonists have depicted the tough guy — who bullies rivals, betrays mentors and calls young troublemakers in low-income housing in the Paris suburbs “scum” — as a gargoyle, Dracula, an evil sorcerer and a devil.
The imagery of the presidential duel tapped into mythic Gothic tales of France, like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
With Hungarian, Greek and Jewish roots, with a father who deserted and belittled him, with his jittery ambition and pugnacious talk, Sarko is jolting the inbred, insular and introspective world of elite French politics. The far right has called him “a foreigner with an unhappy marriage,” and a Sego adviser scorned him as “an American neocon with a French passport.”
“He’s an arriviste,” said Bruno Ract-Madoux, the owner of a vintage shop in Paris. “From the beginning, he was someone who would sell his mother as fast as possible to get ahead.”
Or as an elegant Parisian woman who voted for Sego warned guests at a postelection dinner party, “He’s like a little Donald Trump.”
Sego was serene and protective — but vague; Sarko was kinetic and pushy — and concrete. As it turned out, the French wanted to be prodded even more than they wanted to be pampered. Perhaps they have decided they have to stop being sluggish so they can continue to be supercilious.
Liberals mocked Sarko’s campaign theme: “A France that wakes up early.” Gérard Biard wrote a piece in the far-left weekly paper Charlie Hebdo: “At dawn, I ripped myself out of bed. … I took a cold shower, put on some mismatched socks and downed eight espressos, as I headed out to meet France in the morning. … The France that wakes up early would rather stay in the sack.”
But even some who voted for the woman who would have been the first La France Présidente admitted that they did not want their country to calcify. “Who has a 35-hour workweek?” said Phillippe Rosenthal, who sells leather chairs.
Sarko wrote in his political book “Testimony” that France “is not a museum” and “must find the energy” to succeed. In his acceptance speech, he said he would “rehabilitate” work, and an adviser promised he would be “a presidential entrepreneur.” (Just as soon as he comes back from his yachting vacation.)
One expatriate friend of mine observed that the French are not lazy, they just want a leisurely lunch.
At a Paris flea market on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the vendors did not eat fast food or takeout at lunchtime. They set up tables with tablecloths, china and crystal and joined other vendors to dine on whole roasted chicken, fresh salad, bread and wine. And some would not interrupt their meal even for shoppers who wanted to buy their wares.
When I was reading newspapers during lunch at a Left Bank hotel, the maître d’ approached. “You’re a journalist,” he pleasantly accused me, implying that only such a robotic American creature could work while eating. He had a point. Nearby, in the lobby, Catherine Deneuve was having fun, smoking and drinking wine with girlfriends surrounded by Chanel bags full of Chanel bags.
They do not want the joie to go out of de vivre, but the French are not averse to being whipped into shape by drill sergeant Sarko. They want the fireplug to plug France into modern capitalism. The French sphinx should bound past the Celtic tiger.
“He wants to make people work and make more money,” said one French professional woman I know. “The French are like children who love to be beaten. Sarkozy is saying, ‘Go do your homework or I’ll beat you.’ The French need to be told that.”
It will be fascinating to watch Sarko try to discipline the French, and change their psychology about work. Or will they discipline him, burrowing into their Camembert cocoon, chasing him away as he did Sego?
The mood here was best summed up with a take on an old Bette Davis line. Jean d’Ormesson, a commentator in Le Figaro, advised: “Fasten your seatbelts. This will be quite a ride.”