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Geopolitics

Lunch At Elysée: Sarkozy's High-Brow Charm Offensive

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is stuck with an approval rating below 30 percent. Will his weekly lunches with the cream of Paris “civil society” help change his image?

Sarkozy, shown with the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, likes to mingle with French intellectuals.
Sarkozy, shown with the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, likes to mingle with French intellectuals.
Raphaëlle Bacqué

PARIS - Last Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a lunch date scheduled with a journalist and two writers. Up until that morning, the guests, political chronicler Eric Zemmour, writer Denis Tillinac and novelist Yann Moix, had imagined that between military intervention in Libya and the rise of the far right in local French elections, the president would be too busy to attend. But Sarkozy arrived on time, relaxed, smiling, and even informal, "as if we were meeting in a restaurant," said Tillinac.

Over the last six months, the president has regularly met with writers, intellectuals and artists, never once cancelling one of these dates. It's his time to relax and unplug. These meetings are a chance for Sarkozy to seduce those who arrive imagining him uncultured, but come away praising his "youthfulness', "energy" and "simplicity". They are Sarkozy's way of penetrating the Paris elite that hold their nose up to his controversial politics, but continue to watch him with interest and curiosity.

Patrick Besson, writer and chronicler from the weekly news magazine Le Point, who was one of the guests a few weeks ago, amusingly sums up these moments of presidential recreation: "I had felt like I was his gym instructor, without the gym".

Last Wednesday, the three guests were also joined by former politician Alain Carignon, who despite spending several years of political scandal and prison, has remained a close friend of the head of state.

It is Carignon, alongside presidential advisor and former journalist Catherine Pégard, who has been responsible these past few months for bringing this slice of Paris, regarded by those in power as representative of "civil society", to the presidential Elysée palace. Pégard, keen to get an eclectic mix of guests, has invited authors like Marc Dugain, Alexandre Jardin, Dominique Bona, as well as François-GuillaumeLorrain the cinema critic for the weekly newspaper Le Point, and historian Evelyne Lever.

But Carignon tends to select people he identifies as being more clearly aligned with the political right. His choices are usually male, most often editorialists, academics, and high-ranking civil servants; guests from a macho world "far from the dinners that Carla (Bruni-Sarkozy) organizes for him," sums up Tillinac.

Obviously, given this mix of curious intellectuals and potential political supporters, the outcome of the lunch is never sure. When Sarkozy's guests exchange stories, they often discover that the president has his pet topics and repeats the same complaints about the press at several lunches. He might say, "Did you see the coverage in Le Point? Can it really be that bad? Honestly!" Or this merciless attack against his predecessors: "Mitterrand and Chirac came to power when they were already too old and worn out. They didn't want to reform anything!"

One guest, the writer Alexandre Jardin notes, "Despite his clear determination, Sarkozy sometimes doesn't catch the deeper meaning of things." But guests rarely leave the president's residence without being a little dazzled by him. For a head of state who has gone down as the most unpopular president in 50 years, these moments of charm cannot be understated.

Last Wednesday, the conversation at the president's lunch table turned to politics. While, it has to be noted that guest Yann Moix prudently abstained from any type of partisan talk, Denis Tillinac and Eric Zemmour waded in. Tillinac is one those who discreetly frets over the "bohemian, bourgeois influence" of the president's wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. When she pushed her husband to defend the French minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, after far-right politician Marine Le Pen accused him of promoting the prostitution of young boys in his book "Bad Life," he was among those who told the president "with that, you lost 500,000 Catholic votes."

Zemmour is a formidable debater. He is even more talkative than Sarkozy, and much further to the right. The two men have known each other for more than 20 years and address one another informally. "But I didn't see him for his first three years in office," says Zemmour, who criticized the president not long ago for Americanizing France.

Libya was the first disagreement between Sarkozy and Zemmour. The journalist was against military intervention and any form of humanitarian aide, while the president prided himself on initiating action against "a caricature of a regime," in an act that he hopes might restore France's luster in the Mediterranean.

Next, talk moved into immigration, the thorn in the president's relationship with many academics, especially since his speech in Grenoble last July in which he targeted Romanian gypsies.

The party also discussed the official national debate on Islam, which the president's U.M.P. party had launched. Zemmour spoke, according to the other guests, of the large influx of foreigners to France, and the fact that hundreds of suburbanites are already moving to the countryside to "flee the blacks and the Arabs."

"It's (Zemmour's) obsession," said his dining companions, somewhat embarrassed by the discourse. His guest's comments however provided Sarkozy the opportunity to say, "The wave of democratization in Arab countries is precisely one of the solutions to limit immigration!"

The talk then turned to the next French presidential elections in 2012. It's a subject that the president rarely avoids, though he sidesteps definitive responses. His guests might just as easily hear him say, "Carla fears that I am not going to run… " as have him give the outlines for reforms he imagines for a possible second term.

Sarkozy doesn't seem to believe in the possibility that the director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will run for president, and when he brings up a Socialist Party adversary he mainly speaks of party chief Martine Aubry.

Does Sarkozy fear the effects of his unpopularity? He never brings it up, except to lash out at the press. But he can't ignore the fact that the situation couldn't be more risky. "He sees too many people not to be aware," said Alain Carignon. But kings rarely believe they can fall.

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