A shift to the left by the French president is worrying supporters,
who pin the blame on his wife
November 16, 2008
Matthew Campbell in Paris
Bewildered supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right French
president, are wondering what to do. Should they blame the global
financial crisis or the influence of Carla Bruni, his glamorous wife,
for what sounds like a lurch to the political left?
Rarely does a day pass without "Sarko" displaying signs of an
ideological rethink. He has attacked "fat cats" and the "dictatorship
of the market". He declared that "laissez-faire capitalism is over"
and has called for a cap on executive pay and an end to "golden parachutes".
The transformation is striking given that Sarkozy, famed for his
"zero tolerance" policing as interior minister, was once derided on
the left as a dangerous right-winger.
These days he is caricatured on one internet website as a French Che
Guevara. Martin Schulz, German leader of the socialists in the
European parliament, congratulated him (mockingly) for "speaking like
a real European socialist".
Sarkozy's aides call it pragmatism, but to some it sounds like
socialist dogma: he has pledged to create 100,000 state-subsidised
jobs the sort of gesture for which he ridiculed the former
socialist government last year. Sarkozy does not seem to rule out the
idea that he has changed his political stripes. "Have I become a
socialist?" he asked recently. "Perhaps."
Bruni, who has often described herself as a woman of the left, may
welcome it as a positive evolution in the man who has been making big
efforts to win the hearts and minds of her left-leaning art world
friends, a campaign that has already exacted a toll on Franco-Italian
Italy reacted with fury when Bruni persuaded Sarkozy to override a
court's decision to extradite Marina Petrella, a former member of the
Red Brigades, to Rome, where she had been found guilty of armed
robbery, kidnap and murder.
There was more Italian anger when Bruni criticised Silvio Berlusconi,
the centre-right prime minister, last week over his jibe that Barack
Obama, the American president-elect, was "tanned", saying that she
was embarrassed and "very glad to have become French".
Francesco Cossiga, the former Italian president, pronounced himself
happy that Bruni, who once enjoyed a "man-eater" reputation, was no
longer Italian: "Who knows if one day the stormy life of Carla Bruni
will oblige her to ask again for the passport of which she says she
Her recent antics underlined the originality she has brought to the
role of "première dame", as a folk singer juggling official
appearances with efforts to promote her new album. Her predecessor,
Bernadette Chirac, wife of the former president, looked after her
rose garden and was the figurehead of a campaign to save small change
for children's charities.
Bruni, 40, last week highlighted her new activism by joining a
campaign to stamp out racism and shake up the white political elite.
"Power in France has often had the same face, that of men who are
white and ageing. We must help the elites to change, or force them a
bit . . . without political measures we will wait too long," she said.
She was widely applauded: notwithstanding the revolutionary motto of
liberté, égalité, fraternité, France one of the world's most
racially mixed countries is confronting a growing rebellion by
ethnic minorities in immigrant suburbs. Sarkozy, who came to power
with a promise of "rupture" with the past, has tried to set an
example in a country in which only one of the 555 MPs is black. Even
before he met Bruni he had included members of ethnic minorities in
his cabinet and last week he appointed the country's first black
regional police chief.
Nevertheless, he has stopped short of promises made during the
election campaign, when he argued that since France applied "positive
discrimination" to women and disabled people, it should also apply it
to "compatriots of colour".
Although Bruni is influencing him these days it is widely agreed
that she has exerted a "calming" effect on the hyperactive leader
some see in Sarkozy's recent enthusiasm for state intervention a
return to the French dirigiste tradition, said to be out of fashion.
Others see yet another example of his political genius: his
anti-capitalist rhetoric may be aimed at neutralising Olivier
Besancenot, the "red postman" from Neuilly, whose new
"anti-capitalist party" has attracted impressive support and made him
a star on the left.
Joëlle Garriaud-Maylam, a senator in Sarkozy's party, believes that
the president is more pragmatic than ideological and said: "I
certainly don't think he's turned into a socialist." And as for
Bruni: "She's been having an amazingly good influence on him; I don't
think she should keep her mouth shut just because she's the wife of
the head of state."