France is glad to be rid of Nicolas Sarkozy, who lost the country’s presidency in a runoff election this weekend to the Socialist candidate, François Hollande. He was ineffective in office, and prone to gaffes in public.
But the French will miss him more than they realize. Beneath the boorishness, the cringe-worthy comments, he transformed how France thinks of the presidency, just as he altered what America thinks of the French.
Heads of France lead from a palace, and traditionally they retire to a cloud. Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, the “my two dads” of the Fifth Republic, still float above the country, disembodied and untouchable. Their reputations are fixed: Mr. Chirac is beloved despite a recent conviction for embezzling public funds, while Mr. Mitterrand is remembered as dignified, despite the mistress and the secret daughter that he hid from public view.
Mr. Sarkozy could not have been more different. He occupied the throne as a man of flesh, neither celestial nor sovereign. He had earthly desires and prejudices, and often seemed blind to how they’d be perceived. He held a lavish dinner on the night he was first elected. He took a vacation on a wealthy supporter’s yacht. Soon after he divorced his wife he dashed toward celebrity, marrying a supermodel after taking her on a date to Disneyland Paris.
If you have a hard time picturing a French president wearing mouse ears, imagine France’s reaction. The French like their presidents fatherly, even grandfatherly. In Mr. Sarkozy’s case, there simply was too much skin — pictures of the president sunbathing next to his bikini babe, or wearing running shorts on the palace steps after a jog.
Nor did he seem to hold much esteem for the masses. Only two weeks ago, a video surfaced online of Mr. Sarkozy, pressing flesh in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, discreetly slipping off his $70,000 watch, as if he feared a supporter might steal it while shaking hands.
But Mr. Sarkozy’s flaws also made him accessible. He was brash, young, emotional and candid, blunt as the cigars he loved to smoke. He adored the spotlight but was said to be moody in private.
And he was vain, so vain. Mr. Sarkozy is short, and he was aware that his countrymen, unjustly, would hold it against him in office. In photographs with his taller wife, he often took the high ground; occasionally he wore stacked heels.
Even in the big televised debate between the candidates last week, during what was considered Mr. Sarkozy’s last chance to win over France, he was emotional, jolting and weaving — for three hours, part boxer, part teenager, all heart. Meanwhile Mr. Hollande sat in place, shoulders fixed, calm and steady. Only occasionally did he wobble like the top of a crème caramel.
French politicians draw from an elite, unvaried cadre — again, with Mr. Sarkozy an exception. Mr. Hollande, “Monsieur Normal,” is, in this way, a reversion to the mean. He’s calm and placid and dislikes confrontation. He will embody France as no one outside France may want it to appear: bland, elitist, aloof.
In fact, Mr. Sarkozy was never particularly “French” as we know it. He wasn’t a gourmand, academic or wonk. He loved America, unabashedly, and Elvis, and wasn’t ashamed to say so.
And we, to the extent that we could ever love a French president, took to him. Americans don’t mind millionaires running our business. Mr. Sarkozy, president of the rich, was always more our man than theirs. For five years, we had a man in Europe we could have elected ourselves.
Now he’s gone. The vote wasn’t for Mr. Hollande, but against his opposite — a rebuff of Mr. Sarkozy’s policies, but also his singularity, his vanity and naughtiness.
France and America have a long history of mutual loathing and longing. Americans still dream of Paris; Parisians still dream of the America they find in the movies of David Lynch. It will take time for both countries to adjust to a new leader, a new image. For our part, we may even learn what a real Socialist is.
But the French will have it worse. They may not miss Nicolas Sarkozy now; they may never pine for him to return. They will, however, feel his absence. The temperature will drop. When an object we love to hate is removed, then love is lost, too.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.