Sarkozy: Low on dignity, high on humanity

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Sarkozy: Low on dignity, high on humanity
27 Jan 2008, 0047 hrs IST,Shashi Tharoor for TIMES OF INDIA

It is curious that even in the Indian media, the build-up to the visit this week of France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy focused quite so obsessively on his personal life. Had he secretly married the Franco-Italian model-singer Carla Bruni? Was he going to bring her to New Delhi as First Lady?

Such were the questions that dominated press articles about the impending arrival in India of a major political figure – and that was odd, not merely because there were more important things worth analysing on Franco-Indian relations, but because the Indian press has traditionally drawn a discreet veil over the private lives of our politicians.

Indeed the disconnect between what our journalists and editors claim to know about politicians and what they are willing to write about is rather striking. Members of the media talk quite openly (at least in living-room gossip) about things that in other countries would be the basis for investigative exposes.

I remember a very senior editor telling me, many years ago, about the alleged habit of a certain distinguished Scheduled Caste cabinet minister, while on tour around the country, of having Brahmin girls procured in each location for his nocturnal pleasure. When I asked why, if this was common knowledge, the editor’s own paper had never reported it, he looked quite startled and said, “We don’t do that sort of thing, my boy.”

So, journalists will tell you quite cheerfully that a certain former prime minister had lived most of his adult life in a menage-a-trois with his lady love and her complaisant husband, while continuing with a straight face to describe him as a bachelor. A senior minister lives openly with a political colleague, but she is described only as his party’s president, never as his companion. This is the Indian way: the private lives of public figures are deemed to be their business, not the public’s. And perhaps that is how it should be.

After all, that was how it used to be in the West; the sexual peccadilloes of assorted American presidents were simply not discussed until the Lewinsky scandal blew the veil off the Clinton White House.

In France, too, presidents were understood to be discreetly pursuing their extra-marital interests, but the press never discussed such stories; it was only upon the death of president Francois Mitterrand, for instance, that it was revealed he had maintained a long-time mistress and had had a daughter by her, whose appearance at his funeral was the first public acknowledgement of her existence. President Sarkozy’s own relationship with a well-known journalist – who even lived with him when his wife briefly left him – was never reported. So, what has happened to change all that?

Very simply, the president himself has opened his private life to public scrutiny. He has not merely conducted a romance with a media figure; he has flaunted it, taking his lady love (a model and singer) on overseas visits and being photographed with her, visiting tourist sites, holding hands, embracing. The media, invited to indulge its prurience, has lapped it all up.

But what our press seems to have missed in reproducing foreign news agency copy about the president’s indiscretion (and its negative effect on his standing) is the simple possibility that Sarkozy’s actions fit perfectly with a deliberate strategy to transform his office. What Nicolas Sarkozy has systematically done since his election is to take the French presidency, long known for its grandeur and its distance from the people – a presidency occupied by older men who rarely deigned to give press conferences and who would never have been praised for their accessibility – and to reboot it.

And what a reboot this has been. Superficial commentary has called Sarkozy “President bling-bling” and “the People magazine President”, but what he has done is to harness the power of popular imagery to the popularisation of his office. He has personalised the presidency, hyperactively launching and announcing his own initiatives in a dizzying array of fields, but if the presidency is a person, that person must transcend the presidency, or at least its familiar rituals and trappings.

Sarkozy has humanised his office by televising his presidential and personal life; instead of adapting himself to the presidency, he has adapted the presidency to himself, individualising his political power in an increasingly individualist society. The proliferation of media in the 21st century has made voyeurs out of every citizen. Sarkozy is the first major office-holder to realise this, and to cater to it for his political purposes.

To get on the front page with Carla Bruni is as relevant as making headlines with a State visit; the presidency is no longer a symbol, it is a flesh-and-blood man. Sarkozy gives the media just enough to make them more interested than they ever were in any of his predecessors, but not so much as to devalue his office (hence the secrecy about his marriage itself). It is almost as if Princess Diana was holding Tony Blair’s job.

This has, paradoxically, strengthened the presidency in France; in the Information Age, the French president is omnipresent in the information media. In speeches, press conferences, restless trips at home and abroad, interviews and meetings, he sets the agenda, announces policies, and takes initiatives that challenge established orthodoxies; the French now talk of “hyperpresidentialisation”. Sarkozy’s self-exposure fits into the plan; by revealing so much of himself, he reduces the distance between the presidency and the people.

Democracies increasingly like citizens to believe they have control of their own destinies by placing them in the hands of leaders they can relate to. Sarkozy is no remote seigneur; he is “one of us,” with his own passions, disappointments, needs. Conducting a public romance may have reduced the dignity of the presidency, but Sarkozy is president for an era in which dignity is less important than humanity. And few presidents have shown themselves to be as human, in every sense of the term, as Nicolas Sarkozy.

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