John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Sarkozy reinvents France for bling era
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The Independent Online

The republican monarchy invented by Charles de Gaulle aloof, discreet, solemn, haughty vanished last week somewhere between Cinderella's castle and Space Mountain.

Nicolas Sarkozy wants to reinvent France for the 21st century. He has started by reinventing the French presidency for the Age of Celebrity. The President of the Republic has become the host of a permanent chat show; the only contestant in a "Big Brother" house called the Elyse Palace; the star of a soap opera, which as Le Monde pointed out started off as Desperate Housewives and now threatens to become The Bold and the Beautiful.

The centre-left newspaper Libration describes M. Sarkozy as a "bling-bling president", a non-stop blur of microphones, photo-opportunities, millionaire's yachts, Rolex watches, dark glasses, mobile phones, jogging shorts and, now, trophy girlfriends.

M. Sarkozy, who was divorced two months ago, took the model-turned-singer Carla Bruni to Euro Disney last weekend and made sure that the happy news would appear in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

The home-loving, slipper-wearing Charles de Gaulle would never, in any circumstances, have dated a beautiful Franco-Italian pop star and ex-model.

The elegant, machiavellian Franois Mitterrand might have done so, in secret, but he would never have mingled with the crowds at Euro Disney. Jacques Chirac doubtless dated scores of Italian pop singers but never encouraged the paparazzi to take their picture.

At the end of the week, the twice-divorced President flew off to visit Pope Benedict XVI.

The President greeted the Pope cheerfully like an old friend, then, as his official delegation was introduced to His Holiness, rudely checked his mobile phone. The Sarkozy entourage included Jean-Marie Bigard, a devout Catholic and France's most popular, and most foul-mouthed, stand-up comedian.

The presidential party also included Carla Bruni's mother. M. Sarkozy had apparently wanted to take Carla to Rome as the official "first girlfriend" but the Vatican thought this was going too far. Mme Bruni, 39, is after all divorced.

In a speech after accepting an honorary canonship, M. Sarkozy, who hardly ever attends mass, said: "In this world, obsessed with material comforts, France needs devout Catholics who are not afraid to say what they are and what they believe."

He also insisted that France's roots were "essentially Christian".

At one level, it was a thoughtful and brave speech, which argued that Christian and secular values need not conflict.

On another level, M. Sarkozy shattered theconvention that French presidents, as high representatives of a secular French republic, should not defend or promote one religion above others. The French left was incandescent and the President knew that it would be.

All of this is classical Sarko. Everything is done with confidence; everything is done rapidly; everything is performed with mirror, or compact video-camera, metaphorically in hand. Genres are confused; values muddled; conventions trampled.

The French film director and occasional political commentator Claude Chabrol says that he sees nothing wrong, in principle, with a change of presidential style.

The old Mitterrand-Chirac act I'm all-powerful but not responsible was wearing thin. But where, he asks, is Sarkozy going? The much trumpeted, mould-breaking economic reforms have been rather modest so far.

"Perhaps there is a plan but it seems to be all thought up on the hoof," M. Chabrol said. "[Sarkozy] is an intelligent man but he does not think very deeply."

Both Le Monde and Libration have resorted to using the snobbish "V" word vulgarit to describe M. Sarkozy's behaviour. There is something rather vulgar about M. Sarkozy but his vulgarity and his energy are inseparable. He is not part of the traditional French ruling class: effortlessly superior, under-stated, fundamentally unenterprising, sustained by "old money" or the administrative certainties of the Grandes Ecoles.

He represents a New France of media and advertising and money: brash, self-promoting and full of energy and ideas, not always good ones.

It remains to be seen whether Sarkonomics or the Sarko reform programme amount to much. The Sarko style presages the emergence for good or ill of a France which is rather unFrench: less subtle but less hypocritical; vain but not so arrogant; in-your-face but less bound by tradition. This is proving to be a brutal culture shock, not just on the left, but for many people in France who would naturally vote on the right and support a centre-right president.

France may never be quite the same again but that is, after all, what Nicolas Sarkozy promised.