WORLD

SARKO—THE BOOK

A French writer pens a bestselling quasi-novel about M. le président

PAUL WELLS September 10 2007
WORLD

SARKO—THE BOOK

A French writer pens a bestselling quasi-novel about M. le président

PAUL WELLS September 10 2007

SARKO—THE BOOK

A French writer pens a bestselling quasi-novel about M. le président

PAUL WELLS

Nicolas Sarkozy is ashamed of his chihuahua, Big. He used to shop for suits at Lanvin but switched to Dior just as the French presidential campaign was heating up. He let a blond in an off-the-shoulder dress turn his head, only for a moment, one evening over truffle sandwiches at a restaurant in Nice (“She says she dreams about me every night, isn’t that amazing?... Did you try the white chocolate mousse?”).

We know these things about France’s new president because Yasmina Reza, one of

France’s foremost novelists and playwrights, was sitting at Sarkozy’s other elbow around the crowded table on the night the blond chatted the candidate up. It was the kind of extraordinary access Reza enjoyed for a year, at her request, before Sarkozy’s May election victory. No journalist was nearly as close for nearly as long.

The result of this odd collaboration is a slim volume with an opaque title, L’aube, le soir ou la nuit (Dawn, Evening or Nighttime). It is the undisputed sensation of France’s crowded fall literary season, part campaign diary, part confessional, part meditation on the nature of power. Not quite a novel, though most stores are stocking it in the literature section— those that haven’t already sold out.

Reza shares all of her subject’s low regard for reporters and none of his compulsion to spend hours chatting them up, so she granted only one interview about her project, to the genteel left-leaning newsmagazine Le Nouvel

Observateur. In it, she insists it was her idea to put Sarkozy under a microscope, and that he neither approached her nor asked to see her manuscript before publication. She also insists he didn’t try to seduce her—he is 52, she is 48, and his marriage is known to have gone through rocky spells. “He was trying to seduce France,” she says, adding that come to think of it, she should be offended that in all those months of close contact, he didn’t make a move.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s clumsy but largely successful seduction of France continues. Highlights of his summer vacation in an opulent Wolfeboro, N.H., cottage included dockside scrums for the travelling press corps and a floating tantrum aimed at two astonished American photographers who, in Sarkozy’s eyes, manoeuvred their boat too close to his own. One photo from that sunny retreat was doctored in Paris Match, a magazine owned by a close friend of Sarkozy’s, to remove unsightly bulges around the presidential tummy.

And last week the Elysée Palace announced parliamentarians would not be permitted to question Cécilia Sarkozy, the president’s wife, about her role in securing the release of Bulgarian nurses who had been imprisoned and tortured in Libya. Sarkozy himself had held a news conference to celebrate Cécilia’s intervention in July, but when it became controversial because the release seemed to have paved the way for hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and business deals, the celebration ended abruptly.

But Sarkozy’s mood-swinging communications strategy does not seem to have turned the French against him in any significant way. A poll for Le Figaro newspaper showed that after 100 days in power, 71 per cent of respondents approve of the way Sarkozy is governing.

Which means there is a huge audience for Reza’s revelations. She has few to offer. Her bedrock assumption is that what governments do and candidates propose has no intrinsic interest. So she ignores Sarkozy’s speeches and then scrutinizes him intently while he reads the sports scores, lamenting her inability to glean any secrets from his expression. This must be what Moby Dick would be like if Melville had edited out the bits about ships and whales. In the magazine interview, Reza says Sarkozy may regret trusting an author more than he trusts ordinary reporters. Not likely. If a half-million students ever do shut this presidency down, it will not be because Reza faithfully noted the movements of his shoe tassels during a meeting. M