- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

PARIS - Don’t choke on your freedom fries when you hear this, but France’s most-popular and most-talked-about politician — and a favorite to become the next French president — is a big fan of the United States.

And if he becomes the leader of this country one day, Americans can expect a less confrontational and more pro-American ally.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious finance minister now poised to lead France’s governing center-right party starting in late November, is considered to be the most “American” French politician that this country has seen.

“This is the first time we have a presidential candidate who would spend a weekend in Disneyland or run around in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt,” said Nicolas Domenach, a journalist who recently published a biography on Mr. Sarkozy.

“He is not only a child of American culture, but he is the embodiment of American ideals: He has courage, energy, and the spirit of enterprise.”

Mr. Domenach said Mr. Sarkozy always has admired the fact that the American political system is less elitist than that of the French: “When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, he [Mr. Sarkozy] got a real kick out of it,” the biographer said.

Mr. Sarkozy’s warmth toward America, which is not widely known, is less of an issue than his domestic achievements. His political appeal, in any case, lies largely with younger voters who are more receptive to American popular culture.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a Jew, Mr. Sarkozy, 49, is a new kind of French politician who does not shy away from tough reforms and who does not let intellectual debate get in the way of a good decision.

During his years as interior minister, his no-nonsense approach drove down crime statistics. More recently as finance minister, he advocated unpopular reforms that others dared not touch, such as relaxing the 35-hour work-week law.

Despite his penchant for confrontation and controversy — not to mention his unbridled ambition to be president — Mr. Sarkozy remains overwhelmingly popular. A recent survey conducted by the polling firm Taylor Nelson Sofres showed that 54 percent of the French want to see him “play an important role” in the months and years to come.

“Sarkozy embodies the aspirations of the French,” said Brice Teinturier, director of politics and opinion at Sofres. “They want someone who is a visionary, someone who is a great thinker. And Sarkozy, who is results-driven, energetic and frank, is a model of leadership.”

Drawn by Mr. Sarkozy’s reputation as a go-getting, straight-talking action man, Tom Cruise requested an audience with him on a recent trip through Paris. Although he later was criticized for receiving the actor — a member of the Church of Scientology — Mr. Sarkozy remained defiant.

“Tom Cruise is a great actor. I have a lot of regard for him because I am a cinephile,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “It was very nice [to meet him], and because we are practically from the same generation, we had many things to talk about.”

While no one expects Mr. Sarkozy to see eye to eye with Americans on every issue, analysts agree he would push for closer French-U.S. relations if he becomes president. Those close to him say he certainly would be more in touch with U.S. habits and values than other French politicians.

“He does not take an ideological approach. He does not label the United States a ‘hyper power’ as previous French politicians have done,” said a senior member of the French Cabinet.

“He is very pragmatic, and therefore, he would be less confrontational. But he will also be very vigilant in preserving French and European interests,” the Cabinet minister said.

Much of the intense media attention on Mr. Sarkozy has focused not just on his presidential ambitions, but on his nearly decade-long rivalry with President Jacques Chirac.

The 71-year-old leader has never concealed his desire to prevent his former protege from becoming his successor, even assigning him the toughest jobs in an effort to undermine his popularity. Mr. Sarkozy headed the interior and finance ministries when crime was rampant and the economy was flagging.

The rivalry began in 1995, when Mr. Sarkozy backed Mr. Chirac’s rival, Edouard Balladur, to represent the conservative party in presidential elections. But over the years, other differences deepened the fissure. According to Mr. Domenach, Mr. Chirac worries that a Sarkozy presidency would put France “in the hands of America.”

The French presidential election is still three years away, but analysts say Mr. Sarkozy almost certainly will be chosen as the chief of the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement, in a ballot of the party’s legislators in late November.

While leadership of the UMP is considered a springboard to the presidency, the move is not without its risks: In choosing to leave the finance ministry, Mr. Sarkozy may be seen as a man more focused on his political goals than on the good of the country. He also will risk leaving the media spotlight.

“By quitting the government, Sarkozy will no longer be in the midst of the action, and he may see his popularity decline as a result,” said Mr. Teinturier.

“When you are the leader of the governing party, you must also agree with the government. But up to now, Sarkozy has largely based his popularity on opposing Chirac. Now, he must maintain the hope that he is different, that he will not fall into the same mold.”

Always a step ahead, Mr. Sarkozy anticipated those concerns. Announcing his candidacy at the UMP’s leadership election earlier this month, he declared that his support for the government would be only “conditional.”

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