France's Sarkozy Off to a Running Start

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 4, 2007

PARIS, Aug. 3 -- Two and a half months into his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has perfected the image of a jog-and-jet leader trying to shove his lethargic country into high gear. The French have taken to calling him the hyper-president.

He's everywhere: jogging in a sweat-soaked NYPD T-shirt, locked in intense conversation with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, handing his cellphone to a bemused Russian President Vladimir Putin, kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He's shaking up government, pushing legislation through a special summer session of Parliament, giving tax breaks to French who work overtime, raising cigarette taxes, taking on an antiquated university system, and trying to force transit unions to operate trains and buses during public strikes.

Through this, he has portrayed himself as too busy to move from his suburban apartment into the opulent presidential Elysee Palace in the heart of Paris. "You know, it takes time -- we are a large family," he recently told reporters inquiring about the vacant presidential digs.

Opponents criticize both the style and substance of his young presidency: They say his jogging form is abysmal, he's too authoritarian, he has backed away from campaign promises and watered down proposed reforms, he claims credit for international successes that others have toiled over for months and he crashes European Union meetings where he's not invited.

"Omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient," Socialist opposition leader François Hollande told the National Assembly in July. "The head of state decides everything, speaks about everything, intervenes in everything and evokes nothing." Nonetheless, with the highest approval ratings of any president since Charles de Gaulle, Sarkozy is putting France back on the international map and sending its citizens on their August holidays in the most buoyant national mood in years. "He's at the center of everything," said Jean-François Doridot, who heads the Ipsos polling agency. "People are talking only about him."

Many French attribute Sarkozy's initial success not just to what he is telling them about working harder and shedding old notions of the government's role in society, but how he's saying it. Sarkozy, 52, has brought a more human, populist touch to an office that was viewed as elitist and detached under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

"Sarkozy is using our words -- that makes him closer to us than other presidents," said Catherine Blet, a 39-year-old Paris municipal employee. "He got me interested in our country because of the way he speaks, using down-to-earth vocabulary. I can understand him."

He's also dispensing with decades-old rites, such as granting amnesty for all unpaid traffic tickets upon taking over the presidency and releasing thousands of prisoners from overcrowded jails on Bastille Day, a tradition that Napoleon Bonaparte instituted in 1802 to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison by revolutionaries.

Sarkozy is heavily courting international leaders, massaging tattered relations with the United States and European neighbors and attempting to exert greater influence in the Middle East and Africa.

In a symbolic move, he became the first European leader to pose in his official portrait with both his national flag and the blue and gold-starred banner of the European Union.

He plans to visit President Bush in Washington and to address the U.S. Congress in the fall. Forsaking traditional French vacation locales, he reportedly is taking his family to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire for part of their August holiday. He is expected to stay in the 11-bathroom shorefront mansion of former Microsoft executive Michael Appe, according to the Boston Globe. But one of his highest-profile international appearances threatened this week to become a major political liability.

Last month, France's first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy, flew to Libya for meetings that ultimately led to the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting children with HIV. They had been held in Libyan prison cells for eight years, despite constant pleas of innocence.

Even as the first lady appeared in the photographs with the jubilant medical workers on July 24, many European officials grumbled that she was grabbing the limelight from E.U. authorities who had worked years for their release.

The next day, President Sarkozy flew to Tripoli and met with Gaddafi and signed security, health care and immigration pacts. At the time, the French government denied any arms deals were signed during the visit, but officials acknowledged a $230 million antitank missile sale after Gaddafi's son, Saif ul-Islam Gaddafi, this week disclosed the agreement in an interview with the Paris newspaper Le Monde.

The French government denied statements by Gaddafi's son that the release of the medical workers opened the way for the weapons contract.

Socialist leader Hollande on Friday demanded a parliamentary investigation, saying, "If there was no exchange, if there was no bartering, why sign a military agreement with the Gaddafi regime, which has been responsible for terrorist acts, which has been a rogue state?"

On the home front, Sarkozy has proved to be a cunning political adversary, stunning the Socialist opposition by giving prominent positions to some of the party's most influential leaders. Most recently, he nominated Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist considered to be his mostly likely competitor in the next election, to head the International Monetary Fund.

Sarkozy was relatively successful in his first effort to push policy changes through Parliament.

Lawmakers approved his plan to encourage people to work longer than the official 35-hour week by eliminating income taxes and social welfare contributions on overtime hours and lowering the income tax cap from 60 percent to 50 percent.

His proposal to reduce the bloated government bureaucracy by replacing only a third of all civil servants who retire was diluted, with some ministries allowed to replace half of all retirees.

Sarkozy's effort to revamp the country's unwieldy university system, giving colleges greater autonomy, was approved only after his ruling party agreed to eliminate proposed changes to tuition and admissions, two of the most controversial subjects.

Critics and supporters are gearing up for tougher battles ahead. Le Monde cautioned in a recent editorial: "The 'hyper-president' is not Superman."

"I think tax breaks are a good thing -- it's popular," said Fabien Krantz, 29, a telecommunications operator on his way to catch a train to London for the holidays. "But we'll see if he's as popular when he passes reforms that are more restrictive, such as reforming the health-care system."

Despite his sweaty jogging togs, Sarkozy managed to make Vanity Fair magazine's new list of the world's best-dressed men.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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