Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicolas Sarkozy, a slightly built pretender to the French presidency, would not seem to have a whole lot in common. But Sarkozy loves to compare himself with California's "Terminator" turned governor. Both are self-made men, he suggests, from foreign backgrounds with "a name that's difficult to pronounce." Sarkozy also likes to pose for magazine pictures that are consciously Kennedyesque. There's even a shot of his young son playing beneath his desk the way John-John once played beneath JFK's. In fact, Sarkozy, 49, is reveling in his image right now as France's Mr. America.
The contrast with French President Jacques Chirac, 72, could hardly be more striking, or more calculated. Chirac has self-consciously cast himself as Mr. Un-America since leading international opposition to the invasion of Iraq last year. Can Sarkozy take him out? Even though elections are more than two years away, Sarkozy has stated his ambitions openly, and already he's coming on strong: barring an unexpected surprise, he is expected this week to take over leadership of Chirac's Gaullist party.
"Sarko," as he's called, became France's most popular right-wing politician while doing a flamboyant stint as a straight-talking Interior minister in 2002 and 2003, including high-profile consultations with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani that led to a "zero tolerance" policy toward crime. He took on the complex question of how to integrate millions of Muslim immigrants and their descendants into French society, reaching some conclusions that amount to heresy for the French establishment: He advocates affirmative action. He argues that separation of church and state should be modified so the French government can start funding mosques instead of leaving that job, in some cases, to fundamentalists from abroad. He eventually supported the ban on religious garb in schools, including veils and scarves for Muslim girls. And earlier this year, Sarko moved to the Finance Ministry, jawboning price cuts for basic consumer products and pushing to privatize France's electricity company. He has positioned himself to make life hell for any potential rival in the 2007 elections--including Chirac, should the president decide to run for a third term.
So back in the U.S.A., the land of freedom fries, has the moment come to break out that bottle of Dom Perignon hidden in the back of a closet? Well, maybe not just yet.
For all the self-conscious spin about Sarko's American sympathies and style, the story behind his rise is intensely French, and as full of intimate personal intrigues as anything at the court of Louis XIV. The son of an aristocratic Hungarian emigre, Sarkozy grew up in the genteel Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where high-school friends remember him unabashedly announcing he intended to be president of the republic some day. In 1975, when the then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac first heard the 20-year-old Sarkozy speak at a rally, Chirac told him, "You, you are made for politics," and quickly made him a protege.
By the 1980s, Sarko was almost part of the Chirac family. His relations with Chirac's daughter, Claude, who is now the president's key media adviser, were so close that recently she felt compelled to tell Le Monde reporter Beatrice Gurrey, unbidden, "I was never Nicolas Sarkozy's mistress." In the early 1990s, Sarkozy would be a witness at Claude's wedding.
In those days, Sarkozy was seen as a fast-rising star in Gaullist ranks. But he thought he could rise faster. Instead of backing Chirac's 1995 bid for the presidency, Sarkozy joined his rival. The sense of betrayal chez Chirac, by all accounts, was about as personal as it could get. In her recent book about Sarkozy and Chirac, "The Rebel and the King," Gurrey quotes Chirac's saying, "Sarkozy, I will never forgive him. And to think that I have seen him in his boxers."
It took Sarkozy more than five years to organize his own comeback--restoring other political alliances, cultivating high-profile friendships with movie stars, creating an image of himself as the future of French politics and now gunning for the top job. "He has a sense of what works, an intuition for 'modernity'," says Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations. "He has so much energy and is so quick, sometimes it's almost frightening." Indeed, Sarkozy may not have Schwarzenegger's build, but from where Chirac is sitting, he may be starting to look a lot like the Terminator.