In France, Jogging Is a Running Joke

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

The sight of the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, jogging -- often wearing his favorite NYPD T-shirt -- has fired up a tempest in a Reebok in France and Britain this summer. Sarkozy's running is an un-French, right-wing conspiracy, suggests Paris' left-wing newspaper Libération. In response, British commentators gleefully conclude: The French have lost their minds, again.

On the primary state television channel, France 2, Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French intellectual, recently demanded that Sarkozy give up his "undignified" exercise. Not only did he imply that exposing the boss's naked knees is something that never would have occurred in the time of Mitterrand, much less Louis XIV, Finkielkraut claimed strolling is the proper activity of the thinking person, from Socrates to the poet Arthur Rimbaud.

"Western civilization, in its best sense, was born with the promenade," said Finkielkraut. "Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act. Jogging is management of the body. The jogger says I am in control. It has nothing to do with meditation."

Sarkozy has fueled a French suspicion that running is for self-centered individualists like Americans, reports Charles Bremner, Paris correspondent for the Times of London.

"Patrick Mignon, a sports sociologist, noted that French intellectuals had always held sport in contempt, while totalitarian regimes cultivated physical fitness," Bremner writes.

"Jogging is of course about performance and individualism, values that are traditionally ascribed to the right," Odile Baudrier, editor of V02 magazine, a sports publication, told Libération.

The British press is having a wonderful time with all this.

"The Sarkozy jog, say his critics, is a sad imitation of the habits of American presidents, and a capitulation to 'le défi Américain' (a phrase that was the title of a book published here as 'The American Challenge') as bad as the influx of Hollywood movies," writes Boris Johnson, a British member of Parliament and confirmed jogger, in the Telegraph.

"I am not deterred . . . by the accusation that jogging is right-wing," he says. "Of course it is right-wing, in the sense that the facts of life are generally right-wing. The very act of forcing yourself to go for a run, every morning, is a highly conservative business. There is the mental effort needed to overcome your laziness.

"Charles de Gaulle . . . moved with the stately undulation of a giraffe, and never broke into so much as a trot."

Jogging is not a new affectation for Sarkozy. When he was finance minister, visiting Washington for meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, he found it congenial to jog around the Mall, a French Embassy spokeswoman says. Former French ambassador to the United States (and recently named an adviser to Sarkozy) Jean-David Levitte does not indulge, however. Levitte "has a lot of things to do. He is on the run intellectually," she says.

Meanwhile, the readers of British press Web sites are piling on. "No decent conservative would dream of jogging. It's a vulgar, untraditional form of self-advertisement that might frighten the horses. What's wrong with croquet?" posted Ian Morrison on the Telegraph Web site. "Had it been a spot of extracurricular horizontal jogging instead, je pense que ze political classe wouldn't have batted an eye," posted Nixon McVicar.

In the heyday of vaudeville, there was a routine that had one woman complaining about the food at a Catskills resort. "It's terrible," she says. "Yes," agrees her friend, "and the portions are so small."

Just so, not only is Sarkozy's running being criticized, so is his style.

Renaud Longuèvre, a noted coach, tells L'Equipe magazine that Sarkozy's arms hang down, he bends too far forward, his stride is bad and his feet strike the ground incorrectly, Bremner reports. The coach advised the president to get his feet checked, strengthen his abdominal and posterior muscles and to "check your diet because it seems you are carrying a slight excess in weight."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company