Les Folies Sarkozy

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 15, 2008

PARIS -- Nine months along, the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy is drawing increasing comparisons to a bad soap opera. He is ruthlessly lampooned on the Internet and portrayed in the media as a monarch and a money-obsessed dilettante, with a documented passion for yachts, country estates and travel on private jets -- with the tabs typically picked up by tycoon friends.

His presidency has been marked by public temper tantrums, a 172 percent pay raise orchestrated by his office, a divorce and then marriage four months later to an Italian supermodel-turned-singer whom he'd known for 80 days.

These and other startling acts have more than a few people here speculating about conditions inside the man's head. "It's a conversation everybody's having," said Nicole Bacharan, a political analyst at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. "The whole country, especially people who voted for him, are turning into therapists."

Sarkozy invites comparison to Tom Cruise -- intense, headstrong, athletic, dynamic, charismatic. The president has not started jumping up and down on a couch, but there is a sense among many people here that he could, at any moment.

"I sometimes feel that he's totally crazy," said Lois Nathan, 63, an American English professor who has lived in France for 20 years. "When I watch him talk, I often say to myself that he doesn't have a stable psychology. And I often wonder, what on Earth is he doing?"

All this comes from a man who won election with some very sober promises. He would revitalize a stodgy presidency and reinvigorate a morose country. People's hard work would be rewarded with higher pay. He would run a can-do administration, open and modern, that would restore French pride.

"I wonder how his presidency is going to turn out, because it's already a real circus," said Alexandra Boret, 20, an art student in Paris. "He lacks judgment, or he may just have bad advisers."

Sarkozy's approval ratings have plummeted to about 39 percent, with polls showing his party could take a shellacking in municipal elections next month. Pollsters attribute the collapse to two main factors: his failure to improve economic conditions and overexposure to his personal life, elements of which strike some people here as nouveau riche and vulgar.

The popular TV news parody "Les Guignols de l'Info," a nightly puppet show, sometimes mocks Sarkozy's affinity for Rolex watches by giving him an armful. He has also been saddled with a disparaging nickname: Bling-Bling, the hip-hop expression for the gaudy trappings of wealth.

"He is the president of France, and I wish that he was a little more classy," said Felix Noir, 33, a Web developer and communications executive. He faulted Sarkozy for first publicizing his affair with Italian supermodel Carla Bruni with a much-photographed outing to Disneyland Paris in October. "It was pathetic. . . . That was the beginning of the end -- the hunter got captured by the game."

A three-month romance followed, including trips to Egypt and Jordan, lavish parties and exchanges of expensive gifts, all chronicled by both the tabloid and mainstream press. Almost-nude photos of Bruni from her modeling days showed up in the media, with much recounting of her previous liaisons with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Donald Trump.

She and the president were married in a secret ceremony at the presidential ¿lys¿e Palace on Feb. 2.

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