L'état, c'est moi: the cult of Sarko

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Midway though his term of office, the President's imperious ways are provoking a growing outcry. Last night Sarkozy and son were forced into a humiliating climbdown to regain the public's trust

Never before has a 23-year-old student's announcement that he's withdrawing a job application caused such waves of astonishment and relief. Last night Jean Sarkozy, the son of the French President, abandoned his dream of taking over the political leadership of the huge
La Défense skyscraper park just west of Paris.

The announcement by the young man, on the television news, brought to an end a battle of political wills which appeared, in recent days, to have pitted the Sarkozy clan against almost the whole of France, from the press and public to the President's own party and Prime Minister.

The tangled and absurd affair of the fast-track political ambitions of "Prince Jean" has – along with a series of other mis-steps, accidents and embarrassments – shaken the trust of the French people in their hyperactive, can-do President. Last night's U-turn, although elegantly handled by the younger Sarkozy, may have come too late to repair the damage.

Asked if the head of state had played a part in the decision, Jean Sarkozy told the France 2 nightly news: "If you're asking me if I've spoken to the President, the answer is 'No'. If you're asking me if I've spoken to my father, the answer is 'Yes'."

Nicolas Sarkozy reaches the half-way point of his five-year presidency in a couple of weeks' time. There is no serious alternative to him, either on the left or within his own political family, the centre right. His handling of the global recession has been reasonably sure-footed at home and influential abroad. His much-trumpeted programme of reforms has proved to be incremental and cautious, rather than revolutionary, but far from pointless.

Nonetheless, with half of his mandate still to run, President Sarkozy's carefully constructed public image as a "different" kind of French politician – a man who governs in the interest of ordinary people, not elites or special interests; a man who understands the reality of life for "people who rise early" – is in danger of falling apart.

The Hauts de Seine council west of Paris, dominated by the President's cronies, had been due today to rubber-stamp Jean Sarkozy's bid to become the political leader of the body which manages La Défense, the biggest single office development in Europe. Until last night any suggestion that this was a bad idea in a Republic which (in theory) guillotined inherited, aristocratic privileges more than 200 years ago had been dismissed by President Sarkozy as an ignoble attack on his family.

Jean is the second son of the President's first, of three, marriages. He is repeating, for the second time, his second year as a law student. The President insisted that Jean's meteoric rise, to become the centre right leader on the Hauts de Seine council last year, and to covet the leadership of La Défense, could be explained entirely by due, democratic process and his son's extraordinary abilities.

In country where young people struggle to find jobs and, if employed, struggle to be taken seriously, the clamour of angry protest grew and grew. For the first time since his election in May 2007, under increasing pressure from within his own camp, President Sarkozy was forced last night into a humiliating public climbdown.

This afternoon will also see the end of the Clearstream trial in which the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin is accused of spreading lies to destroy Mr Sarkozy's rise to the presidency in 2004. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, Clearstream has also become a trial of the narcissistic style, and questionable political judgement, of President Sarkozy. After doing everything possible to ensure that the prosecution of Mr Villepin went ahead, the President referred to his former colleague on TV, just before the hearings began three weeks ago, as a "guilty man". He later "regretted" making any comment on the trial, but declined to withdraw or apologise.

"The present style of government in France is closer to Putin than De Gaulle", "The cult of personality around Sarkozy ... the centralisation of power are taking us towards a Stalinism of the right", "As far as I am concerned, a page has been turned. I can no longer support, directly or indirectly, such an abuse of power".

These comments (and many similar ones) were to be found this week in an online forum conducted by France's best and most respected newspaper, Le Monde. The contributors are not long-time Sarkozy-baiters on the left or far right. All claim to be once-enthusiastic members of Mr Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Many of the parliamentarians representing the UMP have been in off-the-record revolt against Mr Sarkozy – on Prince Jean and other issues – for days. Even the long-suffering Prime Minister, François Fillon, was said to have been considering whether he could continue in the government. Officially, Mr Fillon, largely marginalised by the President's compulsive greed for the limelight, is fully behind Mr Sarkozy. Privately, according to the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé, Mr Fillon spoke of the Jean Sarkozy affair as an "enormous mistake... one that gives a catastrophic image of Nicolas Sarkozy at home and abroad."

As Mr Fillon points out (according to Le Canard), the timing of the saga of Prince Jean made it doubly and triply devastating. Although France did not fall as rapidly and as deeply into recession as Britain, the economic suffering is still spreading and could last longer. At the same time, Mr Sarkozy's own troops on the centre right are beginning to question the direction in which their "hyper-President" is leading the country.

After promising to rid France of the allegedly effete values of a post-1968, lefty-liberal political "elite", Mr Sarkozy recently appointed as Culture Minister a man who, to many French conservatives, represents precisely those values. The fact that Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of the former president, was selected despite being openly gay is to Mr Sarkozy's credit (although he was actually chosen because he was a friend of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and because the capture of any Mitterrand would annoy the left).

Mr Mitterrand's sexual orientation is not something swallowed easily in La France profonde. The furore earlier this month about Mr Mitterrand's book, describing his experiences as a sexual tourist in Thailand, provoked a strange, and rather dangerous, mixture of anger and schadenfreude within the French centre right.

Some of Mr Sarkozy's social and economic choices are also causing confusion and annoyance in his own ranks. His anti-poverty commissioner, Martin Hirsch, another appointment plucked from the left, has pushed through a more generous new system of payments for the long-term unemployed, especially the young unemployed.

This may be justified, but is not what Candidate Sarkozy promised in 2007 when he spoke of abandoning the "welfare culture" and promoting a France which "works harder and earns more".

There has also been bafflement on the right at Mr Sarkozy's conversion to radical eco-causes (a new carbon tax) and his promotion of the idea that GDP should be abandoned as the principle measure of political and economic achievement in favour of an index of national "happiness". Once again, these ideas are not entirely stupid. They do, however, fit uneasily with a President who promised to seek growth with his "teeth" and still promises that he will not increase taxes.

A blistering editorial this week by the right-wing commentator Yves de Kerdrel, in the Sarko-supporting newspaper Le Figaro, accused the President of surrendering to the old centre-left French verities even though France no longer had a coherent centre left. By pandering to the usual pressure groups and permitting "laxity" in state finances, the article suggested, Mr Sarkozy was in danger of becoming another Jacques Chirac.

When these issues are discussed off the record, some UMP parliamentarians place the blame on President Sarkozy's allegedly populist-inclined aides in the Elysée Palace. Some of them blame Carla Bruni. The first lady, a self-proclaimed and unabashed limousine lefty, has muddled Mr Sarkozy's true instincts, they suggest. The arrival of Carla Bruni late in 2007, when the President appeared to be floundering after the collapse of his second marriage, has reshaped Mr Sarkozy in some respects – literally reshaped him.

The first lady devised a diet and fitness programme which made the President look even leaner and hungrier than before. (This was blamed publicly by some of his friends for his collapse, while jogging, in July.) The first lady also devised a crash course of summer studies for a husband whom she regarded as culturally illiterate. Politically, her influence is real, but limited. She has some input on human rights and cultural issues, such as the choice of Frédéric Mitterrand. However, UMP sources say that she should not be blamed for the President's apparent incoherence on economic subjects, which leave Ms Bruni-Sarkozy cold.

In truth, Sarkonomics was always a rather muddled code, taking ideas from left and right, mingling liberalism with protectionism, Anglo-Saxon economic attitudes with classic French dirigisme. After almost two-and-a-half years in power, the contradictions of the Sarkozy approach are beginning to show.

His reforms of universities and pension rights in the public sector were necessary and useful, but far more limited than government, or opposition, propaganda have tried to suggest. Reforms of education and the health service have scarcely started.

Tax concessions to the rich in Mr Sarkozy's first couple of months failed to produce the promised economic boom but plunged state finances even further into the red. (These figures have been conveniently drowned in more red ink by the recession.)

For much of his presidency, these muddles and inconsistencies have been concealed by Mr Sarkozy's energetic, assertive personality. After plunging in the polls in early 2008, he recovered thanks to his strong performance as acting president of the EU last year and his role in co-ordinating global reaction to the recession. In recent days, his approval rating has plunged back down to 39 per cent.

The power of Mr Sarkozy's personality – his refusal to brook contradiction by even his closest friends and allies – has now been revealed as a source of great weakness. None of his ministers or aides had dared to suggest to the President that allowing an inexperienced 23-year-old son to be fast-tracked to the head of La Défense might be seen as an insult in a country which officially worships Egalité. Even Ms Bruni-Sarkozy, UMP sources said, had been unable, or unwilling, to raise this subject with her husband. "On Jean, he has a total blind spot," one UMP deputy explained. "It is the classic syndrome of the divorced father." Jean Sarkozy, and his older brother, Pierre, were toddlers when Nicolas left their mother to live with the future Cécilia Sarkozy in 1988.

Jean was largely brought up by his mother, Marie-Dominique Culioli, part of one of the several, intertwined Corsican business and political clans which have long been influential in Hauts de Seine. "Jean is his father's son," said one political commentator. "But he is also Corsican. Very Corsican." The hundreds of millions of euros in rents and taxes generated by La Défense have long smoothed the path of centre-right politics in Hauts de Seine – and beyond.

Opinions differ on whose idea it was to catapult Jean to the political leadership of the body which will oversee the plans to expand the skyscraper ghetto, and its profits, in the next decade. Some UMP deputies believe that the real driving force in the affair had always been Sarkozy Jnr himself – not necessarily with his father's best interests clearly in mind.

"It is infuriating, and disturbing, that the President cannot see the harm that he is doing to himself," said a UMP deputy before last night's announcement. "You have to remember that Sarkozy was elected as a man who would break down barriers to success in France, the real barriers but also the invisible, psychological barriers."

A large part of the Sarkozy programme has always been to alter the mind of France, just as Margaret Thatcher – consciously or unconsciously – transformed the self-image of Britain. He promised to make France into a can-do, genuinely egalitarian country, not a country run by, and for, a narrow Paris elite. Instead, half way through his term, he is in danger of being seen, even by his supporters, as a hypocrite – an emperor who looks after his own.

Last night, for the first time, France successfully stood up for its own values, against those of Mr Sarkozy. The French Republic 1, The Emperor Nicolas Premier 0.

scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed