By Charlotte Pudlowski
While Barack Obama may be the talk of the town, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is well on his way to becoming a new icon of American pop culture. Down in the polls in France, at least he entertains America.
If proof is needed, consider the wildly popular American TV show Gossip Girl. In a recent episode, Nicolas Sarkozy’s amorousness merits a mention. “Apparently Sarkozy would be a bad kisser,” says the heroine, Serena, confiding to her boyfriend. And she knows something about it: the French president is allegedly her mother’s former lover.
In fact, Sarkozy has almost become a plot line. It is the second time this love affair has been evoked. A few episodes ago, a character recalled, “Don’t forget that weekend with Sarkozy, when he made us go to EuroDisney!” Bursts of laughter followed. What kind of a president would actually go to EuroDisney? Nicolas Sarkozy, in fact, who took Carla Bruni there in 2007.
“Gossip Girl is the kind of series that wants to be very current and topical—characters talk about hot topics,” says Sheila Marikar, an ABC News entertainment reporter. “He is one of the few international leaders who would be mentioned in such a trendy show.”
David Andelman, a former CBS News correspondent in Paris and current editor of World Policy Journal, underlines: “The fact that the French president is mentioned like that in Gossip Girl is a gesture that he is becoming a part of the pop culture in America. When I watched the episode with my wife, we were amazed. We replayed the scene a couple of times. Sarkozy is a rock-star president.”
The problem with rock and roll, of course, is that it’s sometimes hard to understand the lyrics. So too of Sarkozy: a lot of people still don’t know who he actually is, and his politics appear quite confusing in the United States.
“Before he was elected, he showed very right-wing views,” says Andelman. “He was very tough on immigrants for instance. But then, he took people from the left in his government, people like [Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner, and he has done remarkable things to try and improve the lives of poor people. It is not easy to say what he fights for.”
Malicicious tongues might say that Sarkozy himself does not know what to fight for. Upon assuming office, he decided to campaign against corrupt international leaders, such as Muammar Qaddafi—but eventually befriended them. He then decided to fight unemployment—but with the current economic climate, he surely picked the wrong period. And what of his short-lived mission against the European Central Bank and its president while simulateously trying to prove he was a passionate pro-European. Indeed, Sarkozy—perhaps the most right-wing president France has ever had—himself declared in October: “Did I become a socialist? Maybe.”
But, to be fair, American people aren’t really concerned with his politics—they’re more interested in his style…and in his wife.
Sarkozy “became an icon of the pop culture thanks to Carla Bruni,” stresses Marikar. “He became…the kind of character you would talk about at cocktail parties. The idea of him having so much power and such a beautiful woman…is glamorous.”
“Without her, he would just be a short, little, dark-haired politician,” adds Andelman.
The French first lady is adored by the American media. In September, she posed for the cover of Vanity Fair— the same magazine that had named Sarkozy among the best-dressed men in the world in 2007. The profile of the first lady mentions that “Bruni has “helped bring Sarkozy to his senses, “forcing him to abandon his Rolex for something more discreet and persuading him to forego his usual run in a park on the western edge of Paris (sweating in public does not befit a great leader).
Whether Bruni has actually changed him, Sarkozy is the same president who went sailing with George W. Bush two years ago, Ray-Bans perched atop his nose, now married to a pop star and a seductive A-list model. But is he the type who’ll join the Obamas for poetry sessions in the White House?
Sarkozy’s image evokes glamour and fortune, and it’s these characteristics that seem to appeal to young Americans. It is also precisely what exhausts the French.
They have heard far too much about their president’s youthful attitude, his energy and dynamism, but where are the social and economic invigorations they were promised? While Nicolas Sarkozy plays out his presidential duties on the international stage—as a notable mediator between Russia and Georgia, for instance—at home, the French yearn for substance behind their president’s words.
France’s unemployment rate is up to almost 8 percent; purchasing power is shrinking; the economic recession is being felt all over the country.
Americans have just inaugurated a new president, and only time will tell if Obama’s actions speak as loudly as his words of hope and change. But, in France, the honeymoon is already over.
Charlotte Pudlowski is an editorial intern at World Policy Journal and a student in journalism at SciencesPo in Paris. She has contributed to various publications such as Le Figaro, Lemonde.fr, and L’Express.