Home Political mores Barack O’Sarko: Can the Incumbent Win a Second Term?

Barack O’Sarko: Can the Incumbent Win a Second Term?

Are the Republicans crazy enough to go with Ron Paul as their candidate? Is Newt’s moment in the sun over so he can go back to pushing any of the several dozen (terrible) books he’s authored? Will a strand of Mitt Romney’s hair ever fall out of place, and if it does what will happen? (According to the Mayans the answer is total apocalypse.) All pressing questions, and of the variety that the U.S. popular media breathlessly and unendingly reports on. But there is another election that could unseat an incumbent leader this year, which we have heard little about since it is happening in France.

Last month The New Yorker ran a 15 page story about Monsieur le Président Nicolas Sarkozy and the run-up to the April 22nd election that will determine whether or not he gets a second term. It’s easy (or maybe just fun, since it belittles the very sensitive French) to argue that given France’s relative importance on the world stage their election has received about the right amount of mainstream press attention—which is to say, none. But Philip Gourevitch’s entertaining New Yorker piece aside, this is an interesting election. Sarko’s opponents include far-right nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen, who is the daughter of professional xenophobe (and amateur French Nazi) Jean-Marie Le Pen; François Holland, an actual socialist candidate (not a pretend one like we get over here); poet and sometimes former right-wing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin; and now there’s even a soccer player (Eric Cantona) in the field (pitch?).

And the intrigue inherent in that group of candidates comes in addition to the French penchant for scandal, which makes Bill Clinton’s adventures look like holding hands at the seventh grade dance. Ignoring the other candidates, remember that Sarko left his first wife after meeting—at her own wedding—which he was officiating!—while she was nine month pregnant!!—his second wife, who later left him, allowing Sarko (while president) to start dating Italian/French model/pop star Carla Bruni.

Yet there was one part of Gourevitch’s article that related to none of the above, which stuck out to me, in part for what it didn’t state.

“He’s hated,” Saïd Mahrane, a political reporter at the weekly magazine Le Point, told me. “And why is he hated? First of all, because he aroused crazy hope.” It is easy to forget the excitement that Sarkozy once inspired as a figure of national renewal and transformation. But the fervor with which he is now rejected can be properly understood only in relation to his original appeal—as a measure of disillusionment. “I adore Sarkozy,” a former member of his staff told me, “but I’m very, very, very disappointed with his Presidency.” He had over-promised, and then did not deliver on his program, the ex-staffer said: “I think that, in reality, he had no intention of doing it. At bottom, finally, he’s an old-school politician…a man of campaigns, a man of war, a man for taking power.” But he never learned to harness the machinery of government, the ex-staffer said, so “there are many battles he didn’t join because he didn’t know how to fight them.” As a result, “he hasn’t done anything—nothing but nothing.”

One doesn’t need to have followed French politics for these complaints, fair or not, to sound familiar—arousing hope and now being vilified, a figure of renewal and transformation elected in part due to disillusionment, failing to deliver on promises, being unable to negotiate the machinery of government. Although Gourevitch doesn’t invoke the name, it all sounds very Obama. Throw in Pascal Bruckner’s observation in the following paragraph that (due to anti-Semitism) to the French “in the collective conscience he’s a foreigner, not from here,” and the SarkObama similarities are striking.

So will either of these incumbents, similarities and vast differences aside, gain their second terms? I think Obama will, but having heard so little about the race can’t venture a guess for Sarko. It seems that it would be fun to hear more, though.

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