Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s new president, addressed the US Congress on November 7, with his divorce behind him and with the satisfaction of two recent and considerable political accomplishments. The first was his success, in mid-October, in dealing with the first concerted challenge to his presidency—strikes by transport and other unions, accompanied by mass public demonstrations. The second was the European Union’s adoption, at its meeting in Lisbon the same day, of the shortened and simplified union treaty Sarkozy has promoted since becoming president. At an earlier EU meeting in June he had produced the compromise that appeased Poland and let the draft treaty go forward, to replace the elaborate constitutional treaty rejected two years ago by referendums in France and the Netherlands.
His divorce, announced the same day the strikes took place, was not one he wanted, and was of political significance because Cécilia, his companion and wife of the last nineteen years, was closer to him than anyone else, accompanying his ascent from mayor of the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly to France’s presidency. She was constantly at his side, traveling with him, telephoning, advising him, sharing and managing his office when he finally became a cabinet minister. She was not popular with his colleagues, but Cécilia was said to be “the nonnegotiable part of working for Sarkozy.”
She left him two years ago. “I met someone, I fell in love, I left,” she said. (It had been the same when she left her first marriage for Sarkozy.) This time Sarkozy won her back. However, she had said, “First Lady? Ça me rase [that bores me]. Je suis politiquement incorrect.” So it happened. The press has described her as “blunt, chilly, bewitching.” The less bewitched offer other descriptions, noting that she herself has said of Sarkozy, “I am his Achilles’ heel.”
He told a journalist from Le Monde, “I was elected by the French people to solve their problems, not comment on my private life…. It interests them much less than you, and they are right. Perhaps they have a greater sense of propriety and more discretion, sir.” This is what he had already told Lesley Stahl when she interviewed him, rashly thinking that he would tell CBS what he adamantly refused to tell the French press. He walked out of the interview.
Marches and demonstrations have always been part of the French political process, or even the dialogue, and there is a threshold beyond which a prudent government does not go in resisting demands backed by large demonstrations of popular discontent. However, France has the lowest rate of unionization in the European Union—7 percent—lower than in the United States, and membership is concentrated in the state administrations, notably the energy sector, the schools, and public transportation. Union power rests in the ability to close down transport or disrupt electricity supplies, blackmailing government by inflicting public inconvenience and distress, and disrupting business and industry. Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory last spring was widely …