Nicolas Sarkozy, allegedly the most Anglophile (or rather Americanophile) president of the 5th Republic failed his Science Po degree in the late 70s because his English was so poor that he was barred from sitting the politics exams. In the run up to the war in Iraq, the allegedly “Anti-American” Chirac was able to explain the French position in English before the US media, a small feat totally out of reach for the monolingual Sarkozy.
Sarkozy did not have to make small talk in English when he recently met the Queen in Windsor Castle since the British Monarch is fluent in French. On this occasion, some may have warned the Queen that Sarkozy’s French is generally most unceremonial: his crude crack at a person who refused to shake hands with him at a Paris farm show or the derogatory use of the “tu” form to address strangers (in the French context, not a cool way to behave, but rather a condescending or bossy one) have become Internet hits. Meeting youngsters from the banlieues a few months before his election, Sarko boasted to the kids: “I speak like you, I could be one of you”. “Bling-Bling Sarko” confuses familiarity with vulgarity. As one of his critics in the French media cruelly put it: Sarkozy is not small, but low.
Before Sarko, the Gaullist right was not quintessentially vulgar and anti-intellectual. Charles de Gaulle was a well-read man who had the good taste to choose André Malraux as Minister of Culture. Georges Pompidou was an Agrégé de lettres and a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The apparently less highbrow Jacques Chirac is a great connoisseur of Japanese civilization (and, some cynics might like to add, of his banking system) [and leaves the splendid Branly museum as a monument, Editors]. Sarkozy breaks with the Gaullist tradition on that count: he is a self-professed idiot. To one of his advisers who suggested that he visit a museum during a trip in Madrid, Sarko replied: “The idiot thanks you!” (Le con te dit merci!). The ironic jibe fails to conceal Sarkozy’s deep insecurity with regard to the world of knowledge in general and to intellectuals in particular. Sarkozy admitted hating school and underachieved as a student. Recently, he was heard fuming in public against “those researchers who find nothing”.
Sarkozy does not read and does not even pretend that he is in the least interested in literature or arts, which constitutes yet another break with the tradition of French presidents. He is the son of an immigrant from Central Europe who made it to the top of French politics without studying in the elitist Grandes Ecoles. These features should have earned him the sympathy of the French people as they like to back the underdog. However, Sarko has squandered this opportunity: his ostentatious nouveau riche profile and his courtship of the mega-rich have put off the whole nation.
In the end, Sarkozy may fail to substantially Americanize France if the French people find the political resources to defeat his neoliberal rampages through the economy. In the meantime, the country is run by a president who, like George W. Bush, thinks that the world is divided between “good” and “bad people”, that intellectuals are sissies and, last but not least, that it is alright to be not so educated, filthy rich and brag about it.
Philippe Marlière teaches French and EU politics at University College London (UK) since 1994. He is also an activist on the left-wing of the French Socialist Party. He can be reached at email@example.com