Numerous commentators have remarked on Sarkozy's new penchant for standup comedy. It began with his mockery of Hollande's devastating debate anaphora "Moi, président ...," which the president of Les Républicains, if not of the Republic, travestied as "Moi, je ..." The irony of the once-and-would-be-future Hyperprésident mocking the supposed egotism of his successor was delicious. Sarkozy's successful debut as a comedian has apparently encouraged him to continue in this mode, most recently with his now infamous sketch comparing the influx of immigrants to the flow of water from a burst pipe, which drew much laughter from a crowd of Sarkozystes.
Sarkozy's style beauf' is quite deliberate, reflecting not merely bad taste but strategic calculation. Irreverence toward power, rejection of solemnity, and emulation of the common man's often healthy democratic contempt for elites are perennial features of populist politics. Marine Le Pen's rhetoric, like her father's before her, effectively mines the comic vein. Beppe Grillo is a comedian turned politician, like Coluche before him. Sarkozy is a politician turned comedian. His successful presidential campaign in 2007 depended in part on a desacralization of the overly remote French presidency. Once elected, however, his irreverence deserted him, to the point where he ordered prefects to arrest protesters who heckled his appearances on charges of lèse-majesté. His recent turn to scabrous comedy is meant to take him back to his roots as scrappy outsider, as if he had never occupied the Elysée.
The problem Sarkozy faces is to know how far he can push his provocations without going too far. He has already overstepped the line several times. His plumbing routine was preceded, allegedly, by a crack about François Bayrou ("Le bègue, je vais le crever"). In the primary against Alain Juppé, whose style is anything but populist, Sarkozy will probably feel compelled to push his barbs to the limit, to mock his opponent as a remote, unfeeling technocrat. Since self-control has never been one of Sarkozy's strengths, he may well trip himself up.