French presidential campaign: The candidate, his wife, her lover and the question all France is asking

Is a combination of marital difficulties and political pressure about to push the man tipped to succeed Jacques Chirac over the edge? John Lichfield reports from Paris on the latest instalment in what has become known as The Sarko Show
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The Independent Online

M. Sarkozy, a no-longer-young man in a great hurry, has been upsetting a lot of people recently. At the same time, many people have been upsetting M. Sarkozy, including his own wife, Cécilia, and his former mentor, President Jacques Chirac.

Since becoming Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister once again last month, M. Sarkozy, 50, has shocked left-wing politicians by talking about "cleaning up" a violent, multi-racial housing estate with a "Kärcher" (the sort of high-powered hose you use to clean your patio). He has caused indignation among judges by suggesting that they should be "punished" for their mistakes.

Everything now points to a President Sarkozy in 2007. Everything - even the decision to award the 2012 Olympics to London, rather than Paris - is drifting in his favour. President Chirac, at 72, has finally overstayed his welcome. The new Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is a year older than Sarkozy but 30 years behind him in political tradecraft. The French Left has been torn apart by the Non vote in the European referendum and has no obvious or convincing leader. All the same, searching questions are now being asked about the small, pugnacious, blunt, arrogant but popular man, who seems, more than ever, destined to be The Next Big Thing in French politics.

Is Sarko (as he is universally known) losing the plot? After the repudiation of the French establishment in the EU referendum, has he plunged into crude populism to reconcile a skittish and truculent French people with politicians? Or at least one politician? Alternatively, is the threatened break-up of his second marriage threatening to send him over the edge?

"He has the frozen face of someone who is about to crack up," a ministerial colleague is quoted as saying. The centre-left news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, asked on its front cover: "Sarkozy: populist drift or nervous breakdown?" The unctuous and needling socialist politician Arnaud Montebourg referred in the National Assembly to M. Sarkozy's "fragile state of mind". (M. Sarkozy, pugnacious as ever, complained later that this was a "quasi-fascist" remark.) The rumours - and partially confirmed reality - of cracks in M. Sarkozy's power marriage have given his enemies, in his own camp and outside, a smell of blood. A man who had seemed untouchable - capable of straddling the normal left-right fault lines of French politics, untainted by scandal, married to a woman who was also the head of his private office - was vulnerable after all. The state of relations between M. Sarkozy and his wife is unclear, partly because the tough French laws on privacy oblige the French press to talk in mealy-mouthed codes. Swiss and Belgian newspapers have been more detailed and direct but any newspaper which circulates in France - such as The Independent - is subject to the French privacy law. We must also, therefore, talk in mealy-mouthed codes.

Mme Sarkozy, of whom more later, spent a weekend in Jordan at the same time as a senior PR executive. The pair are said to be close friends. M. Sarkozy has admitted to "difficulties in our marriage". Paris-Match says he has given himself 100 days - ie, until September - to reconquer his wife.

M. Sarkozy privately blames "the Chirac clan" for first circulating the rumours that his marriage was on the rocks just before the EU referendum vote. Since returning to the interior ministry a month ago, M. Sarkozy has been engaged in two semi-public witch hunts: both aimed at alleged agents of M. Chirac and his acolyte - now Prime Minister - M. de Villepin.

The first witch-hunt concerns the rumours about the Sarkozy marriage. The second concerns a bogus investigation, conducted while M. de Villepin was interior minister, into alleged secret Sarkozy bank accounts in Luxembourg.

Let us pause for a moment and gaze in wonder at politics in the French style. The Tony vs Gordon show looks, in comparison, like Punch and Judy.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the number three in the present pecking order of the French republic, is investigating semi-publicly alleged attempts to smear him by the Number One (M. Chirac) and the Number Two (M. de Villepin).

M. Sarkozy was brought back into government, post-referendum, by an enfeebled President Chirac because he had no choice. M. Sarkozy would be more dangerous if left at large. The centre-right UMP party - created by Chirac for Chirac - has, within the space of 12 months, become M. Sarkozy's party. UMP deputies would not have tolerated the unelected Mr de Villepin as prime minister unless Sarkozy was in the team. At a rock-bottom 21 per cent in the polls, M. Chirac may, or may not, have given up hope of running for a third term in 2007. (The Olympics decision was surely the final blow.) At all costs, mostly for reasons of jealousy, pique and control-freakery, M. Chirac does not want Mr Sarkozy to be his successor. "Chirac and De Villepin will do anything to destroy me," Mr Sarkozy says privately - and often.

The Interior Minister has also been making scarcely disguised verbal assaults on the president. He has implicitly lambasted M. Chirac's failure, during 10 years in office, to tackle the causes of French high unemployment and low growth. He has mocked M. Chirac's attempts to re-invent himself (yet again) as a defender of the French "social model" against alleged "Anglo-Saxon" ultra-capitalist attitudes. M. Sarkozy said recently: "Cowardice is a sickness which you can't cure and gets worse as you get older." President Chirac is 73 in November.

In other words, just over a month after the French people rejected politics as usual, we have (guess what) politics as usual: ambition, personal calculation, vicious struggles for position between supposedly allied politicians. Well, not quite, say M. Sarkozy's supporters and admirers. The interior minister's behaviour is calculated, not crazy, they say. It is not just calculated to make him President in 2007. It is calculated to make him an effective president, if elected.

If Sarko is reacting to anything, his friends say, it is a vision of a French political class completely dislocated, not so much from popular opinion as from popular trust. He believes he can overcome the immobilism of the French, if he can first win their trust.

To build that trust, Sarko uses a well-worn route onto the 8pm TV news bulletins. Something terrible happens. Sarko rushes round there, arriving before the ambulances. He makes a tough and provocative statement. The left reacts. Sarko is on the telly - again. Dominique de Villepin, who is, after all, Prime Minister, is left gesticulating for attention.

Alain Bauer, president of an organisation which monitors violent and delinquent behaviour in France, said: "Sarkozy has gone back to his favourite themes. He has just increased the volume. These words have nothing to do with skidding to the right nor his personal problems. They are Sarkozy's analysis of French society after 21 April (the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's breakthrough to the second round of the presidential election in 2002) and 29 May (the "no" victory in the EU referendum). When an 11-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between two drug gangs in the "Cité de 4,000", a public housing estate in Courneuve, north of Paris, M. Sarkozy made his remark about "cleaning up with a Kärcher".

Centre-left politicians said this was a lurch towards the kind of language used by the far right: an attempt to appeal to supporters of Le Pen. There was, they suggested, an implied racism in using the words "clean up" about gangs of mainly black and north African youths.

But the dead child was also black. The people of the estate, also mostly Arab and black, were delighted with Sarkozy's words. "If people are shocked by the word 'clean', I would prefer that they are shocked by the death of an 11-year-old boy," M. Sarkozy said. "I don't want to attract the voters of the National Front. I want to attract those who are abandoning the classical and trendy Left. I want to shift the battle lines of French politics."

In other words, Sarkozy wants to convince people that he is not like other politicians. He is not bound by the conventions of language and thought which - to many in the provinces, especially - erect a barrier between France and its ruling caste.

The rejection of the EU constitution turned mostly on an exaggerated and romantic far-left and centre-left revolt against globalism and "ultra-liberalism". Behind there lurked the (understandable) self-interest of the 10,000,000 French adults who depend on state jobs.

Will the French people allow Sarkozy, if elected, to make the changes that the French people say that they want? How can you move France forward without bringing the many entrenched state-sector interests onto the streets? To French activists of the left, Sarko is the free-market devil incarnate - or worse, Tony Blair in Gallic form.

Nonetheless, according to one recent poll, Sarkozy is winning his bet. Almost two thirds of those questioned - 65 per cent - say that Sarko is a man who understands their problems. The same goes for 49 per cent of those who vote on the left.

Sarkozy, who talks openly of the need to rebuild the French "social model" along Anglo-Saxon lines, is detested by left-wing activists but is surprisingly appealing to left-wing voters.

M. Chirac, an inactive cynic, was twice elected by the French people. Before that, François Mitterrand, a different kind of inactive cynic, was also elected twice. Both men knew instinctively that France wants politicians who talk about change but actually change nothing much.

Sarkozy's strategy, according to his supporters, is to use other issues, such as crime and security and the alleged arrogance of the justice system, to build not just popular support but a popular trust, almost a kind of faith. Only a politician who enjoys such popular fervour, across party lines, will be able to perform the necessary surgery on the excesses of the French state, they say. That is the theory.

Questions remain. Has Sarko's all-conquering image been seriously damaged by the problems in his marriage? "Le clan Chirac" obviously hopes so. That is why they took the trouble to feed the rumours to the press.

There was an element of schadenfreude also. As a younger man, M. Sarkozy had a brief romantic entanglement with Chirac's daughter, Claude (another source of the antagonism of Clan Chirac). Soon afterwards, as mayor of Neuilly in the western Paris suburbs, Sarkozy officiated at the marriage between an ageing French TV star, Jacques Martin (the French Hughie Greene) and Cécilia Maria Sara Isabel Ciganer-Albeniz.

M. Sarkozy later told friends that he fell for the young bride of Spanish and Russian extraction there and then. After a brief marriage to M. Martin, Cecilia left with her two children and set up home with Sarkozy.

They seemed to be the ideal power couple, rarely apart. Looking back, however, Cecilia, 47, has been dropping public hints for months that she was not so driven as Nicolas by the need to reach the top. She said that she "did not see herself" as France's first lady. She wanted to preserve her own life and wear jeans and sandals when she wanted to. "I am not who you think I am" she told a TV interviewer.

For all the logic of his strategy of plain-speaking, there has been something more brittle and less self- confident about Sarkozy since the difficulties with Cécilia became public.

The former prime minister Edouard Balladur, the man for whom M. Sarkozy first broke with Chirac in 1995, said recently: "Sometimes I am a little afraid for Nicolas." The comment was partly generated by the Cécilia question. But also by M. Sarkozy's strategy of political shape-shifting - of being in opposition and government at the same time.

Presidents Chirac and Mitterrand pulled off something similar, from within the Elysée Palace. Both were residents rather than presidents; interested in office and status - winning the political board-game - rather than achievement.

M. Sarkozy says he is a different kind of French politician. Will he, when the time comes, really be prepared to draw on - and maybe exhaust - his carefully assembled popularity to move France forward?