French Front-Runner's American Style

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 19, 2007

PARIS -- He urges young people to embrace Martin Luther King Jr. as a role model. He is a devotee of Hollywood movies, and his favorite author is Ernest Hemingway. He wrote a book preaching the gospel of the American work ethic to a nation that clings to a 35-hour workweek.

None of which may seem remarkable, except that the man in question -- Nicolas Sarkozy -- is running for president of France, which typically turns up its nose at such flagrant displays of Yankee Doodlism. And he is leading in all the polls.

"I don't see why my country doesn't take inspiration from its great ally," Sarkozy, former interior minister and now candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement, wrote in his recently updated political autobiography. "I love the value Americans place on work and the desire for excellence that you find everywhere."

Sarkozy's unabashed admiration of the United States has earned him the disparaging moniker "Sarko the American." It contributes to his image among some French as the most controversial, divisive and contradictory of the mainstream candidates in the first round of the presidential voting on Sunday. If no one takes more than half the vote, the top two will compete in a runoff May 6.

"He is not the epitome of the average French guy -- he likes mobility, the capacity to anticipate, to change views, which is more American than French," said Philippe Ridet, a veteran French political reporter who has written a biography of Sarkozy. "He likes Capra's and John Ford's America. Their films, in which your future can always be improved, fascinate him."

Sarkozy's overt American-style political ambition, coupled with his persona as the country's impetuous and tough-talking top cop, alarms some of his countrymen. They find little to emulate in American politics and complain that Sarkozy seems intolerant and alienating. On the campaign trail, he plugs longer workweeks, affirmative action, tax breaks for business -- American-inspired ideals that are anathema to the French way of thinking.

But Sarkozy is striking a chord with voters fed up with the political status quo, years of high unemployment and the country's declining stature on the international stage. In a nation that increasingly fears losing its identity to the shifting demographics of immigration, and domestic security to the growing restlessness and anger of the underclasses, Sarkozy's hard line on immigration and security appeals to many.

With the campaign in its final week, Sarkozy holds a lead over his closest rival, Socialist Ségolène Royal, ranging from three to seven points, according to recent polls of likely voters who have made up their minds. In one survey, 59 percent said they expect Sarkozy to be the next president.

The two other main contenders, François Bayrou of the small Union for French Democracy party, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, trail Sarkozy by about 10 and 15 percentage points, respectively.

Political analysts warn, however, that as many as 40 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

For many people, Sarkozy, 52, is a study in contradictions.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a French-Greek woman whose father was Jewish, Sarkozy wants to tighten controls over new immigrants to France. He recently proposed creating a ministry for immigration and national identity, which some opponents said evoked images of the Vichy era.

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