Next Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the first of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.

Nicolas Sarkozy is the candidate for the presidency of France best known in America—and the most popular, since he is as pro-American and as knowledgeable in all things American as a French political leader can be. A short, thin man with an angular face, ribbed eyebrows, and big dark eyes, he looks a bit like a character in an El Greco painting. French cartoonists, however, tend to portray him as a turbulent, devilish little figure. In spite of being born and raised in the affluent West End of Paris, he speaks with a hoarse, almost working-class, accent. But his command of the French language and his talent as a debater are truly astounding: he was trained as a lawyer and graduated at the Paris Institute for Political Science. No less astounding is his meteoric political career: mayor of Neuilly, a posh suburb of Paris and one of the wealthiest townships of France, at twenty-eight; member of the National Assembly at thirty-three; budget minister at thirty-eight. Before the age of forty, he had achieved membership in the charmed circle of French political leaders thought to have un destin national—a real shot at the presidency, in American English.

But the closer he came to the inner core of French politics, the stranger he appeared. Sarkozy is best described, perhaps, as a neo-Frenchman: he is the son and the grandson of immigrants. His father, Pàl Sàrközy de Nagybocsa, was for years depicted as a Hungarian grandee, the “scion,” according to a Wikipedia profile probably written under his own supervision, “of an aristocratic family who owned lands and a castle in Alattyàn and a domain with 200 peasants.” In reality, he seems to have been a poor relation of the Alattyàn lords who somehow, after a number of unexplained vicissitudes, ended up after World War II in the French Foreign Legion. Honorably discharged in 1948, he soon married Andrée Mallah, a French girl of Salonikan-Jewish descent. Nicolas, born in 1955, was “baptized and confirmed as a Catholic.”

This is a rather convoluted pedigree, a far cry from what was until very recently the unwritten, unspoken, and yet inescapable prerequisite of a bid for the presidency: being connected from time immemorial with a French Christian family, or, at the very least, being the heir of some long-settled Christian or Jewish immigrant dynasty. As a matter of fact, Sarkozy’s swift ascent among French conservatives in the 1980’s and the 1990’s—he became the Gaullist party’s top boss in 1999—elicited many xenophobic and anti-Semitic reactions.

Then, in 2002, after Jacques Chirac’s reelection, the landscape suddenly changed. The Right’s dissatisfaction with Chirac—who was busy recasting himself, after his duel with Le Pen, as a left-of-center liberal—burgeoned explosively. Chirac loyalists countered by forming the UMP, the Union for a Progressive Majority. But their would-be champion, Alain Juppé, was indicted for minor financial crimes committed as Chirac’s former deputy in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and barred from politics for three years. In the ensuing vaccum Sarkozy took Juppé’s putative place as the UMP’s favorite politician (having meanwhile secured for himself the long-coveted ministry of the interior). He became immensely popular, and immensely controversial, for his abandonment of politically correct rhetoric and for his handling of the riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005.

Although Sarkozy is seen in France as a rightist, his politics are—by American standards—only mildly conservative, with occasional liberal outbursts: somewhere between Britain’s Tony Blair and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. He stands for law and order, an important concern in a crime-ridden country. He intends to curb illegal emigration and defend France’s “national identity” while at the same time favoring affirmative action for ethnic or racial minorities and providing French Muslims adequate mosques and other facilities. These are not just words: as minister of the interior, he promoted Muslim prefects (state commissioners) and organized a National Council of the Muslim Religion (since taken over by radical groups). Sarkozy also stands for lower taxes and a dismantling of the welfare state’s most rigid and costly provisions, although he dares not advocate, at least in public, outright elimination of the 35-hour work week. In international affairs, he opposes Turkey’s accession to the EU but would grant it the status of a “special partner.” To the dismay of many of his advisers, he quite openly supports the United States and Israel, his only concession being to state that Chirac was right to oppose the Iraq war.

For the past three years, Chirac loyalists have done their utmost to block Sarkozy’s rise. In 2005, they nearly succeeded: A new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, suddenly overtook Sarkozy in approval ratings. In 2006, however, Villepin disintegrated almost overnight, because of an ill-conceived reform bill on juvenile employment and the “Clearstream affair,” an attempt to bring Sarkozy down through the publication of forged documents purporting to incriminate him in shady financial dealings (the matter is still awaiting judicial determination). All to no avail: on January 14 of this year, the UMP unanimously endorsed Sarkozy for president. The entire conservative camp had suddenly realized that it had to unite against a major threat: the socialist Ségolène Royal.

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