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France

Should François Hollande stop shaving? - France loves the new Sarkozy

media Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy Reuters/Christian

The French media, almost universally hostile to Nicolas Sarkozy while he was in power, are missing him badly.

Bored by the uncharismatic and almost invisible François Hollande, they appear to crave the return of the man who was criticised mercilessly for his “hyperactivité”.

Hollande made much of his discreet style when campaigning. The self-styled “Monsieur Normal” sold the French people an affable, calm persona, who shunned publicity.

Many of them are now concluding that he simply does not have the energy, the authority or the political courage to preside over a country with serious problems.

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Changement

His campaign slogan “Change is Now” raised expectations among those who couldn’t wait to see the back of Sarkozy, but many of those have been disappointed by the inevitable failure of his government in tough economic times to reverse a trend of factory closures, many of them among what were once some of France’s most successful companies (Peugeot, Thompson..)

The Eurozone fiscal pact he told voters he would renegotiate has been voted through the French lower house – unchanged – yet promoted by his government.

Rassemblement

He tirelessly repeated the word “rassembleur” (unifier) while campaigning for the presidency.

Echoing criticisms voiced by many, he declared that Sarkozy had divided France, and turned its people against each other.

Five months into Hollande’s tenure as president, anti-Islamic resentment still bubbles beneath the authorised national conversation and in the tower blocks on the outskirts of most big French cities, police report an almost routine anti-Semitism among jobless young men.

Last weekend French police rounded up 12 people suspected of involvement in an Islamist terrorist cell, including those thought to be behind a grenade attack on a Jewish supermarket.

Hollande remains in the background, apparently in denial, leaving his photogenic but uncompromising Interior Minister, Manuel Valls to take centre stage, and it turns out, the plaudits in opinion polls for a tough approach, ironically regularly likened to Sarkozy’s.

Normalité

Hollande’s promise to keep his private life under wraps exploded spectacularly when his girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler posted a venomous tweet in June about his former longtime partner and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal.

Hungry for meat after spitting out Sarkozy, the press pounced on the story of spite and jealousy which poisons Hollande’s personal life, sapping his energy according to gleeful critics.

Polls show that Hollande has plummeted in popularity, to levels unheard of after such a short period in office, and many would argue that he has not yet even dared to make any really unpopular decisions about cutting public services or boosting competitivity.

This week, Sarkozy’s former campaign spokesperson, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (who recently failed to win enough sponsors to stand as leader of Sarkozy’s UMP political group,) described Hollande as “inaudible, peddling an empty strategy “ and labelling his presidency so far as the “reign of an amateur, insipid and sad.”

Even the slavishly loyal Nouvel Observateur, which enthusiastically backed Hollande during the campaign, ran a front cover recently picturing the new government with the caption “Are they a hopeless bunch?”

Clearly the media in France are wondering if they have killed the goose which laid the golden egg. Like him or dislike him, Nicolas Sarkozy was a vivid personality who excited passion. And now he’s gone. But they still need to sell newspapers.

Meanwhile

Sarkozy has been almost completely silent since his departure, determined not to imitate former president Giscard d’Estaing, who after defeat in 1974 immediately began to try to claw his way back to power, and gained a reputation as someone who carped from the sidelines.

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In contrast, Sarkozy’s silence has fuelled an almost obsessive interest in his fate. What is he doing with himself? Who does he see these days? Is he coping with his defeat? ask the weeklies weekly. And above all “Will he come back?”

Recent opinion polls suggest that a significant minority of French people would like him to.

But no one knows what his intentions are, and instead the columns are filled with snippets of gossip from those who say they have spoken to him recently.

They say that he is pleased to note Hollande’s unfavourable opinion polls, that he is enjoying time with Carla and his family, that he intends to make lots of money, that he does not intend to make lots of money as that would jeopardise an eventual return to politics, that he is a political beast who cannot let go, that he will embrace an entirely different career, and so on.

The funniest comment came this week from one of his former ministers, Roselyne Bachelot. "The political pundits have missed the most obvious clue", she said, referring to all the recent pictures of Sarkozy sporting very deliberate designer stubble: “He’s got a beard, a gay bad-boy style beard.” “That sort of image is hardly going to win over an electorate [UMP voters] which so values respectability”.

For Sarkozy-watchers the beard is especially symbolic: Before declaring his candidacy in the 2007 presidential elections, he was asked if he sometimes thought about being president while shaving. "Not just when I'm shaving," he shot back.

Whatever. In the meantime he has been having intensive English lessons, just as he did after his first major political defeat in 1999.

And today in his first big engagement since his election defeat, he is making a speech in New York at the invitation of a Brazilian Bank.

It will be a private affair, with no journalists, and no indication of what payment he will receive for his appearance.

After a lifetime in politics, Nicolas Sarkozy knows that anything could happen between now and 2017 when France has its next presidential elections.

Not least of his worries are the many investigations into scandals during his time in office.

Dossier - The Bettencourt scandal

He could face judicial action in connection with a number of different affairs, most notably the so called Karachi affair and the Bettencourt affair.

On Wednesday, Anticor, an anti corruption organisation in France, filed a suit, indirectly implicating Sarkozy for allegedly spending public money commissioning opinion polls which appeared only to serve his own political ambitions.

And the political landscape will be completely different in 2017. If he decided to run, Sarkozy could find himself up against someone with a similar political career to his own: the tough-talking interior minister, son of an immigrant, action man who is today’s rising star: Manuel Valls.

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