Sarkozy: The new Napoleon?

Small men. Big ideas. Glamorous wives. The similarities between Nicolas Sarkozy and Napoleon are uncanny – and now have been explored in a book by France's foremost political commentator. John Lichfield reports

Both will be remembered as vertically challenged men in a vertiginous hurry. Both were helped into power by beautiful wives, with whom they quarrelled. Both believed that they had a destiny to rebuild France and, above all, to change the way the French think of themselves. Both are known for a weakness for kitsch and anything that glitters.

Both came from non-French, minor aristocratic backgrounds and despised the Parisian elite. Both had, from the start of their career, an obsession with image and grasped the importance of controlling the media. Physical stature alone has inevitably encouraged comparisons between Napoleon Bonaparte and Nicolas Sarkozy. President Sarkozy is almost exactly the same height as L'Empéreur, about 5ft 6in, which was, in fact, respectably tall in Napoleon's day.

Most of the Napoleon/Nicolas comparisons made since M. Sarkozy became President 20 months ago have been brief and insulting, especially in Germany, a country which can stomach neither Napoleon nor "Nicoleon". France's most subtle and readable political commentator, Alain Duhamel, has now explored the interesting parallels between the two men at book length (La Marche Consulaire – Plon).

France remains schizophrenic about Napoleon's character and legacy. The street-map of Paris is littered with tributes to the emperor's generals, victories, armies and treaties but it has no grand avenue or boulevard named after Napoleon himself.

A critical book then? No, not really. Duhamel's book is, on balance, positive about both men. But, crucially, it limits the period of its comparison to the "Bonaparte" years between 1799 and 1804, when the young Corsican general imposed order on the post-revolutionary muddle. As "First Consul", Bonaparte laid down the framework of the modern French state, from the code civile, to the franc, to the Légion d'honneur, to the colleges for training an "elite".

Duhamel skirts comparison with the "Napoleon" years, from 1804-15, when Bonaparte crowned himself emperor and entered a tyrannical and megalomanic spiral which ended at Waterloo.

"The sixth President of the Fifth Republic resembles the Premier Consul, bold and enigmatic, devastating and vulnerable, inspired and tormented, rather than the Emperor, searing and imperious, brutal and irresistible, glorious and tragic," Duhamel writes. The early Bonaparte, he says, tried to reconcile the need for order, beloved of the royalists and the right, with the need for movement or progress, demanded by the revolutionaries and the left. "Bonapartism", Duhamel says, successfully combined order and movement for the first time in French history.

M. Sarkozy, authoritarian and iconoclastic, morally conservative and politically reformist, is therefore a 21st-century reincarnation of the First Consul: a "Bonaparte in a suit".

"They both set out to make sure that France was never the same again. Both see themselves as the rebuilders of a great but fragile nation... It is up to them, alone, they believe, to rebuild confidence, to restore order but above all to modernise, to reform, to innovate... "They are fighting against time, waging a permanent battle against blockages, resistance, conservatism."

There are other, less flattering, points of comparison, Duhamel admits. Like Napoleon, M. Sarkozy is impatient and nervous, with strange physical tics. Both men fly into unreasonable rages with their subordinates. Both have an inordinate, but tasteless, love of the trappings of wealth and power. Both meddle in the smallest details of policy: Napoleon wrote and dispatched an edict on the future of the French national theatre from a blazing Moscow in 1812. M. Sarkozy found himself exchanging insults with trawlermen when he tried to solve a minor fisheries dispute in 2007.

Both have a blind-spot for the importance of decorum. Napoleon seized the imperial crown from the Pope's hands and crowned himself in 1804. M. Sarkozy invited France's most foul-mouthed comedian to join a delegation to meet Pope Benedict in 2007.

Bonaparte was one of the first politicians to grasp the importance of propaganda and control of the media. Even as a young general, he created his own newspaper to trumpet and embellish his exploits in Italy. Only adulation was permitted once he was in power.

Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of trying to bring state-owned media under his heel by giving himself the sole right to name the boss of France Televisions. As a result, both men, says Duhamel, are "either admired or detested. No one can fail to have an opinion".

Worse, as Duhamel points out, by utterly dominating the political scene, by wanting to control everything, both men risked "over-exposure". Both created expectations which could, perhaps, never be fulfilled.

There is something elemental and driven about President Sarkozy which demands historical comparisons. And he has hit upon a bizarre comparison of his own. On several occasions, he has recalled publicly that France is a country which "turns on its leaders" and "guillotined King Louis XVI and his beautiful young, foreign wife". Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a "gut socialist", is said to have been startled at being compared to Queen "Let-them-eat-cake" Marie-Antoinette.

President Sarkozy may also have found time to glance at another book, written by his close friend, the omnipresent, political wheeler-dealer and business consultant, Alain Minc. Une Histoire de France (Grasset) is a brilliant re-telling of 2,000 years of French history from the point of view of a 21st-century political fixer.

M. Minc is fiercely critical of Napoleon. He makes no comparison between the emperor and his friend, President Sarkozy. But he does point out that the "uncontrolled cavalcade [of Napoleon's career], defined by a constant need for new actions, with no overall design or strategic vision", was always going to be vulnerable to the tiniest defeat or failure.

Duhamel makes the same argument about M. Sarkozy. But can the Sarko myth survive the coming of the twin threats of recession and the publicity shadow cast by President Barack Obama?

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