Satire and anti-Semitism: Like Sarko, like son

France is agog at yet another soap opera involving its First Family. John Lichfield reports

Impatience and sharp elbows run in the genes, it seems. President Nicolas Sarkozy has been battling for space in the French headlines this week not just with his wife, not just with his ex-wife, but with his tall, blond, fast-moving son, Jean.

At the age of 21, "speedy" Sarkozy Jnr has become a political and media phenomenon in his own right. He is, nominally, a second-year law student on his summer holidays. He is also – not entirely to his father's liking – the leader of the majority political group on the council of the wealthiest département in France.

Jean Sarkozy's latest precocious exploit is to achieve something that even his father has not yet succeeded in doing. He has, involuntarily, created confusion and despair in one of the bastions of the French left-libertarian media establishment, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The President's son – who oozes charm and confidence – became engaged this month to one of the wealthiest young women in France. His fiancée is Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, heiress to the family which owns the Darty electrical goods stores – the French equivalent of Currys. Mme Sebaoun-Darty is Jewish. Persistent media rumours – finally denounced yesterday as false – claimed that Jean Sarkozy intended to convert to Judaism before his marriage. On the basis of these rumours, a radical cartoonist-columnist in Charlie Hebdo suggested earlier this month that Jean Sarkozy was an opportunist who would "go far in life". The Sarkozy family and his fiancée's family threatened to sue the magazine for alleged anti-Semitism. The magazine's editor asked the veteran cartoonist, Siné to retract. He replied: "I would rather cut off my balls."

The cartoonist, 79, was fired and has now brought a legal action for defamation against Charlie Hebdo and, "anyone else who suggests that I am an anti-Semite and a shit". The staff and contributors of the magazine, a raunchier version of Private Eye, are split acrimoniously between those who support the editor, Philippe Val, and those who accuse him of selling out to the "Sarkozy clan" and the reputation of Charlie Hebdo for shameless mischief-making. In the midst of all this, Jean Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa has found time to make the news in two other ways.

He appeared in court last month, accused of running his scooter into the back of a car and driving away without giving his name. The court reserved judgment but even the prosecution asked for the case to be dropped for lack of evidence.

Second, the young Sarkozy – the second son of the first of the President's three marriages – has found himself this week as the intermediary in an explosive political row between two warring clans of his father's allies and friends in the wealthy suburban département of Hauts-de-Seine, just west of Paris.

The département, which was President Sarkozy's springboard to power, is the richest in France. It has long been the seat of vicious political feuds and claims of endemic financial wrong-doing. (None of these allegations have ever touched M. Sarkozy Snr).

Jean Sarkozy, who was elected as a local councillor for the first time in March, pole-vaulted unexpectedly last month into the position of leader of the centre-right group on the Hauts-de-Seine council. Some local politicians suggest that President Sarkozy was behind this coup; others suggest he was appalled, not for the first time, that his son had moved so far, so fast.

Either way, the son's rapid rise was a blow to the president of the Hauts-de-Seine council, Patrick Devedjian – an old ally of President Sarkozy, now out of favour at the Elysée. M. Devedjian's candidate for party leader lost out to a 21-year-old, albeit one called Sarkozy.

Apparently seeking revenge, M. Devedjian said this week that he planned to "cleanse the Augean stables" of corruption among Hauts-de-Seine politicians of his own – and President Sarkozy's – centre right party. Other local politicians in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) protested furiously. They called on M. Sarkozy to intervene – not Nicolas Sarkozy, 53, the President of the Republic, but Jean Sarkozy, 21, the student. The young man let it be known that he was "very angry" with M. Devedjian, 63.

Hauts-de-Seine politics have long been surreal. Nicolas Sarkozy mounted a daring coup of his own to become Mayor of the millionaire's enclave of Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of the Paris boundary, at the age of 28 in 1983.

Jean Sarkozy's lightning rise has made his father's efforts look sluggardly. Sarkozy père is said, by Hauts-de-Seine politicians, to be torn between admiration for his son and suspicion of his motives. Jean-Francois Probst was a senior official and wheeler-dealer in national, and Hauts-de-Seine, politics for decades. He has known Jean Sarkozy since he was a baby.

"He is going to astonish us all that one," he said this week. "There is Brutus in him. Or Caligula. He has his father's mannerisms and his father's voice but he is taller, better-built and he looks like an angel."

Jean Sarkozy is the son of President Sarkozy and his Corsican-born first wife, Marie-Dominique Culioli. He has an older brother, Pierre, 23, who is a pop-music producer. The two boys were toddlers when Nicolas Sarkozy – already Mayor of Neuilly – abandoned the marriage to live with his wife's best friend, Cécilia Martin. The Sarkozy sons were largely brought up by their mother but continued to live in Neuilly and spent a great deal of time with their father.

Father and sons would, among other things, rarely miss a home game en famille at Paris Saint-Germain, the only professional football club in the capital.

After a not especially brilliant school career, Jean became a law student two years ago. He also dabbled with the theatre. Last year, after private acting lessons, he auditioned for a part in a comedy in a small Paris theatre. He was offered a leading role.

"I didn't know he was the 'son of...', said the play's director, Philippe Hersen. "He auditioned under his mother's name. He had enormous charisma, good diction and an ability to improvise."

Remind you of anyone? In any case, Sarkozy père intervened and forbade Sarkozy fils to start a career on the stage. He was to have played – ironically in view of the controversy about his future wedding – the part of "the son-in-law".

In March this year, Jean Sarkozy was given another role, this time by his father. He was to "accompany" the Elysée Palace press officer, a brilliant but widely disliked young man called David Martinon, in the local elections in Sarkozy's old fiefdom, Neuilly-sur-Seine. Although M. Martinon had no local links and no political experience, President Sarkozy had decided he would be the new Mayor of Neuilly. The voters – 80 per cent right of centre – only had to rubber stamp the Elysée's choice.

They revolted. M. Martinon turned out to be a leaden candidate. A section of the local UMP decided to back another politician. The leaders of the revolt – de facto a revolt against President Sarkozy – included Jean. This, according to officials, was the moment when father started to take his son seriously: to admire him but also to worry about him. "He's just like Nicolas at 21," says one local politician.

"Especially his voice. He has the same catch-phrase, such as, 'it's all very simple' or 'I am going to tell you the truth'. Of the two boys, he is the one who is most like his father, except that he is 20cms taller."

Other people in Neuilly who know Jean well say that he is a quieter, less confrontational person than his father: someone who likes to build consensus rather than overturn convention. "He has his mother's gentleness," one said.

Jean Sarkozy will, in theory, return to his law studies in September at the Université Paris 1, Panthéon Sorbonne. Rumour suggests that he has not been a very assiduous student. Like his father did before him, he seems likely to cut out the usual academic route into the French elite and plunge directly into local politics.

His relationship with Jessica Sebaoun-Darty is not recent. She also lives in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the gilded suburb wedged between Paris, the Bois de Boulogne and the river Seine. Both are part of a Sloane-ranger-like clan of wealthy young Parisians, who live in the so-called "triangle" of Neuilly and the 8th and 16th arrondissments of Paris.

Jean Sarkozy was said to have been deeply wounded by the Charlie Hebdo column, which took the form of a "talking" cartoon in the cartoonist's own hand-writing. The column accused him of being a young man on the make.

"Jean Sarkozy, worthy son of his father and already a UMP councillor, emerged almost to applause after his court case for not stopping after an accident on his scooter," Siné wrote.

"The prosecutor even asked for him to be cleared. You have to remember that the plaintiff was an Arab. And that's not all. He has just said that he wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, who is Jewish, and heir of the founders of Darty. He will go far in life, this boy!"

Charlie Hebdo published the cartoon/column but the editor, Philippe Val, later criticised it as "peddling a falsehood" about Jean Sarkozy's conversion and having "anti-Semitic" undertones. His comments, according to other journalists at Charlie Hebdo, followed the threat of a lawsuit from both Jean's and Jessica's families.

M. Val offered Siné the chance to repudiate his work. "I asked him if he was taking the piss," Siné said. "I would rather cut off my balls." Charlie Hebdo then said that it would no longer use the cartoonist's work. Siné announced that he was bringing a lawsuit of his own.

What, then, are we to make of a brilliant, natural politician who has started his career absurdly young and attracts adulation, or controversy, wherever he goes? As Jean-Francois Probst said: "He is going to astonish us all, that one."

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