Nicolas Sarkozy: Charles de Gaulle’s (Prodigal) Son?


by John Gaffney

It is the received view – a view that took root that fateful evening at Fouquet’s restaurant, the evening of his victory over his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, in May 2007 – that Nicolas Sarkozy as President between 2007 and 2012 betrayed Charles de Gaulle’s République de Grandeur, replacing it with a République de ‘bling’. On May 6, 2007, to celebrate his triumphant election to the most powerful office in the Western world, more powerful in domestic terms than even the President of the United States, Sarkozy and his rich friends (Sarkozy is not himself rich) [1] dined ostentatiously. All the high fives revealing an overabundance of Rolexes, as the bottles of champagne emptied (although Sarkozy himself does not drink). He later spent a short holiday on the Paloma, the yacht of his friend Vincent Bolloré, one of the richest businessmen in France (Sarkozy himself does not have a yacht). Sarkozy had said in early 2007 that, if he won the presidency, he would spend some time meditating or gathering his thoughts, perhaps in a monastery. The vulgar desire to party instead put a curse on his presidency that he could not shake off throughout his five-year term.

To celebrate presidential election victory, de Gaulle would have dined modestly at home, Giscard in a less ostentatious, yet classier, restaurant – probably La Tour d’Argent. Mitterrand perhaps on the left-bank with his family – or at least one of his families… perhaps Chez Lipp on the Boulevard St. Germain. Chirac would have partied too, but at least given the impression that there was a popular edge to it.

What on Earth had Sarkozy done? He seemed, overnight, to have turned the presidency into a Hello Magazine feature article: I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here meets the elected monarchy of one of the most cultivated, protocol-conscious and historically sensitive countries on the planet. In a series of actions in the period that followed, almost tripling his salary, noisily divorcing, and even more noisily remarrying (one of his and Carla’s first weekends together was spent at Eurodisney, for goodness sake), giving big tax breaks to the rich, swearing at a man in a crowd (‘casse-toi, pauv’ con’, which translates as something akin to ‘fuck off, you twat’), and so on. The President’s behaviour soon saw the French begin to shudder with embarrassment and disapproval.

De Gaulle, or so he said, returned to power in 1958 to make France ‘great’ again. De Gaulle’s new Fifth Republic France was to have grandeur and rang (a rank equal to its great status), and would shine (rayonner) its civilising mission around the globe. From 1958, France would be France again, after 14 years of instability, military capitulation (in Vietnam), governmental paralysis and petty party politicking. And all of this was thanks to de Gaulle, le grand Charles (1.92 cms). Le petit Nicolas (1.65 cms), on the other hand, by generally lowering the tone (the French really don’t like people doing that), had shaken the Gaullist settlement, the lynchpin of political stability and therefore social and economic prosperity, to its foundations. He had undermined the Republic. The grandeur of the presidency and its maintenance, therefore, has an essential political function, in that it binds the Republic together.

In June 1940, to keep it safe, the young General de Gaulle put France in his pocket and took it to London. In 1944, as leader of the new Provisional Government, he brought it back again. In 1946, he resigned as Prime Minister and put France back in his pocket, and went off to brood for twelve years in the little village of Colombey-les-deux-églises. Such is the myth. In 1958, they went to find him, and he came back once again, pulled France and grandeur out of his pocket yet again, and gave it back to the now grateful French. Grateful but fickle, the soon ungrateful French, after a decade of prosperity, rejected him once again in 1969, and it has been downhill in the grandeur department ever since.

Is all of this true, as the quasi-totality of informed opinion argues and believes; that ‘Sarko’ has sullied the presidential myth? Not a bit of it. Sarkozy is de Gaulle’s political son (perhaps a little prodigal), as were Pompidou, Giscard, Mitterrand and Chirac. They are all very different siblings, but all de Gaulle’s children, nevertheless. Let’s see why; why they are all more like one another than they appear, and why Sarkozy is de Gaulle’s direct descendant.

Few political scientists or historians have understood exactly what de Gaulle did to French politics; what truly the ‘Gaullist settlement’ was. Many, along with most of the French population today, bought into the Gaullist myth; that he had truly saved France in its hour of need. Perhaps this is true, but let us briefly revisit what happened. De Gaulle came to power in a moment of drama, in 1958. The rising by the pieds noirs (Algerians of European origin), and the military coup that took place in Algiers on 13 May 1958 in defiance of Paris and the Fourth Republic, constituted, more than anything else, a dramatic event, sudden and shocking, virile, dangerous, defiant, and… aimless; one could say, almost theatrical. The government in Paris, on the other hand, had completely forgotten its lines.

After four weeks of no government at all before 13 May, the Pierre Pflimlin government, voted in on 14 May, was the ‘strongest’ in the Fourth Republic (274 votes for/179 against); but it watched the Algiers coup, paralysed, fearful and utterly speechless. The coup was able to take place, indeed, because Paris had lost its political authority on both sides of the Mediterranean; had lost it in Paris, as well as in its most cherished of colonies (constitutionally, Algeria was not actually a colony, but a part of France, which made things even more complicated). Algiers barked and Paris barked back, just a little, but crucially neither actually did anything. In Algiers, activity mainly consisted of people throwing paper out of government building windows and in the streets beeping their horns non-stop on their Lambrettas and Vespas. Such is revolution. In Paris, activity mainly consisted of having meetings, doing nothing, and hurrying back to constituencies to do nothing even more than usual. Such is government.

De Gaulle stepped into this freeze frame the next day saying he (he, de Gaulle, the man, without support, without resources, without legitimacy, without a party, without troops) was ready to ‘assume’ the powers of the Republic, and restore state authority. And restore it, he did. The political class, the army, and then the French (and then each and all of these groups, again and again) conferred upon him the authority to act, which he did, first by drawing the fading legitimacy of the Fourth Republic into himself by being voted in as the (last) Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic, and then, through referendum and electoral college vote, in January 1959, the first President of the Fifth Republic, with his very own new constitution – which he then ignored – comporting himself unashamedly as if he were king of the world, and choreographing (unconstitutional) referendums, sealing his magical bond with the French, and enabling him to do politically whatever he pleased.

Charles de Gaulle

Is this so different from Sarkozy? Perhaps not, but that is not where the true similarities lie, nor, therefore, the real explanation for the Sarkozy phenomenon or Sarkozy’s fortunes. What de Gaulle brought to French politics was not just (or, given he often ignored it, even) a new presidential constitution, nor grandeur – he certainly acted with high protocol, but the France he nurtured: Renault Dauphines (in fact, a rubbish car), fridges, televisions for all, holidays, and the tourniquette pour faire la vinaigrette – was the same consumer-society France that Sarkozy (crisis non oblige) presided.

France is a consumption driven capitalist society organised by the Fifth Republic, begun by de Gaulle and bequeathed to his successors. But even this is not where the true similarities lie. What de Gaulle truly brought to French politics was not essentially either modern capitalism or grandeur, but ‘self’; that is to say himself. Himself as a character, a personnage, free to ‘perform’ in the political space, on the political stage, deploying his character traits, and these with far reaching political effects, so that Fifth republicanism was whatever he happened to be thinking and doing. This is the real Gaullist settlement, which distinguishes France from all comparable Western countries: a regime in which the character and personality of the leader, perceived as necessary and possessing of authority, can and indeed must, act and perform with all the character faults, caprice, errors of judgement, vanity, and arrogance that are bound to arise when an individual is afforded such scope in a democracy. Such kingly caprice really only exists in fairy tale kingdoms; which is exactly what Fifth Republic France is (see the opening lines of de Gaulle’s Memoirs to see quite how much he believed in fairy tales)[2],  a chivalric land, where knights conquer power (slay dragons, rescue princesses, and become President), but sometimes lose their virtu after coronation; so new knights emerge and the cycle continues. Late capitalism meets Camelot.

All of de Gaulle’s successors have conducted themselves in this way, with the capriciousness of a pantomime king: Pompidou, who unceremoniously sacked his too popular Prime Minister, as he too had been unfairly sacked, Giscard with his monarchical pretentiousness, Mitterrand with his Machiavellian vindictiveness, Chirac with utter foolishness dissolving the National Assembly in 1997, and bringing his arch rivals to governmental power; all took personal caprice to new heights in order to show that they were truly the children of the most capricious of them all. Is Sarkozy so different, with his breathtaking ego, bouts of despair, driven ambition up the ladders and down the snakes of fortuna; with his triumphalism, temper tantrums, and foolish self-certainties, is he any different from all the others?

Well, de Gaulle brought something else to the presidential template in 1958, something else of enormous consequence to French politics. In the wake of his ‘self’, he brought a highly emotional relationship, ‘imagined’ in the constructivist sense, but no less emotionally-charged for that, with the French, themselves, in part ‘imagined’ too. The two Presidents who made it clear that, if they were disavowed by the people, they would withdraw irrevocably from political life were Charles de Gaulle and … Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s personal. What de Gaulle constructed, in the wake of his imposing personal entry onto the political stage, and in the heart of the new republic, was an unmediated and passionate relationship with the French (‘imagined’ as the ‘Nation’, la France profonde, or le pays, le peuple, or ‘Françaises, Français’). Hence the referendums and the direct election of the President. This notion of an unmediated relationship between leader and people had always existed in French politics, in a range of ‘isms’; from monarchism via Bonapartism to Pétainism, but never in mainstream democratic politics; a relationship imagined as intense, emotional, affective, visceral and mutually dependent.

Democracy, in fact, gave the relationship the added dimension of emotional choice. Today, in the collective memory, de Gaulle is remembered with love and devotion. ‘Twas not always thus: exasperation, anger and, in 1968, lampoon and derision were also intensely felt and meted out; by 1969, he was becoming an embarrassment. For Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012, the intensity of feeling was as strong, but in inverse proportion to the devotion de Gaulle had also known. He was intensely disliked, but in a truly Fifth Republic manner. Only in this very French republic does each person have a personal opinion, often intensely felt, of their President. This phenomenon simply does not exist in, for example, the United Kingdom. I may dislike David Cameron or Ed Miliband; but they do not stop me getting to sleep at night. Sarkozy puts people into a rage. Huge numbers of French people cannot bear him.

The Fifth Republic is about ‘character’, but in a far more complex way than in, say, the United States, where ‘character’ is akin to ‘mettle’, courage, and thoughtfulness. In France, in a complex and dialectical relationship with notions of presidential ‘stature’, there is a dynamic relationship, lived as if it were real, between ‘opinion’ and the President. Sarkozy was criticised for his policies, his handling of the economy (although his handling of the worst recession for at least a generation has, in fact, been rather good), and his hyperactivity; but the truly damning aspect of his presidency has been the perception of him by the French as: unstable, vulgar, vain, inconsistent, shallow, unreliable, neurotic, and as possibly dangerous for democracy. We could make a case that he is none of these things (well, perhaps neurotic), but he has somehow allowed all these responses to him to take root and flourish. He has contributed, through inadvertence and lack of understanding how the Fifth Republic really works, to this state of affairs. What none of France’s political leaders truly grasped – and there is evidence this included de Gaulle – is how the political culture affects the institutions, and how the Fifth Republic modulates and mediates an imagined relationship between leaders and led. The innovation of Charles de Gaulle, thanks to a set of dramatic circumstances, was to bring to the heart of the Republic the phenomenon of personal allegiance, thus ‘reconciling’ the Republic with the deeply-rooted and chivalric, but unrepublican tradition of the providential man.

But one final point, the most important of all as regards this imminent election. It concerns the role of public emotion to the man and to the office. And it, for now, at least, is having a sudden yet profound effect upon Sarkozy’s fortunes. The election of the President by direct adult suffrage is the most popular moment of the Fifth Republic. The French, a very politically intelligent nation (for the most part, most of the time), are attentive and committed to exercising their right and duty to elect the President. This right was conferred upon them by de Gaulle in 1962 over the heads of the political parties, because he thought France would never see the likes of him again, so had better try and choose a good second best to look after his constitution.

Since the first full election in 1965, the French have generally been enthusiastic and dutiful presidential citizens, but they sometimes get bored with the personalities involved, rather than the policies, or with the idea that the claimants can actually do anything. In 2002, they failed to vote in sufficient numbers, and it really was a boring first round election, and let the extreme right-winger, Jean-Marie Le Pen, through to round two. The sense of national shame was palpable between rounds one and two, which saw the uninspiring and uninspired Jacques Chirac re-elected with an 82% score that would have made Kim ll-Sung blush. Never again, they all said, would the French neglect their civic duty. But in our relationships (even the imagined ones), we can be fickle, loyal, intimidated, infatuated, sometimes even in love, but also sometimes bored. At the beginning of the 2012 election, boredom began to dominate, partly because there seemed nothing else to do but to wait three months for the moment they could to get rid of Sarkozy. A high abstention rate was predicted. Then came the spate of killings in March 2012 in Montauban and Toulouse. For several days, the country was truly in a state of shock at the horror of the cold-blooded execution of three defenceless soldiers, and later the murder of three Jewish children and their teacher going to school, the awful events being filmed by the killer, all adding to a surreal disbelief in these all too real events.

By Wednesday, 21 March, the suspended election campaign, suspended out of respect for the dead, started again; but everything had changed. In terms of the Fifth Republic’s fundamentals, however, nothing had changed; for what we saw was the camera full-on, once again, on the character of the pretenders to the throne – how did they react to the killings, how did they conduct themselves, were they respectful, did they try to profit from the tragedy? And three-quarters of those polled were impressed by the way Sarkozy responded to the Toulouse crisis. And the President became for 48 hours the appropriate symbol of the country’s mourning. Overnight, Sarkozy became presidential in his treatment of the situation, the families of the dead children, and the comrades and families of the fallen soldiers. His rivals stumbled and fumbled; one of them, Marine Le Pen, was speechless at first, in case the killer turned out to be a fascist. When it was clear he claimed Al-Qaeda status, she became much more vocal, and may still benefit from a growing sense of anger at the fact that Mohammed Merah was known to the police and claimed to have spent time training in Afghanistan. But for now, the French in national shock and sorrow have responded well to Sarkozy’s apposite gravitas (and clear sadness). He has, at last, perhaps for the first time since May 2007, become for now at least, as he tries to control his impetuous side, President of all the French.


[1] Sarkozy is at least not super-rich like some of his friends. He is ‘worth’ about £2.5 million. His wife is worth about £18 million (a prenup means the two fortunes remain separate).

[2] De Gaulle’s memoirs begin: ‘All of my life, I have had in my mind a very particular idea of France. It is shaped as much by feeling as by rational thought. The emotional part of me imagines France quite simply like a fairy tale princess or the Madonna in a painting, and fated to have an unusual and glorious destiny. Instinctively, I feel that providence created France in order that she achieve great triumphs or else undergo great misfortunes’ (my translation) (C. de Gaulle, Mémoires, Paris: Plon, 1954 p.1)

About the Author:

John Gaffney is Professor of Politics, and co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University. His most recent book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy, has just been published in paperback by Palgrave-Macmillan.