Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Sarkozy Effect

Politics is a performing art, and style matters. For all his faults, Nicolas Sarkozy is a consummate performer--a method actor who inhabits his roles. When he referred to racaille and promised to clean them out with un Kärcher, or when he challenged a heckler perched atop a crane to come down and have it out man-to-man, he gave good theater. His tough-guy act worked because it wasn't his only mode: he could also taunt interviewers, cite statistics, wax lyrical when equipped with lyrics by Guaino, descend from a shout to a whisper, speak of his marital troubles and subsequent recovery of bliss ("avec Carla c'est du sérieux") with affecting naïveté, reel off statistics with the best of wonks, and think on his feet.

But the act grew old, and it was partly for relief from the ubiquitous "hyperpresident" that voters turned to the man who promised to be un président normal whose motorcade would stop at traffic lights and who would turn the TV screen back to the entertainers. But that act also wore thin, and now the tough-guy mode seems to be making a comeback. Or at any rate this is what occurred to me as I listened to a couple of interviews with Bruno Lemaire. On the printed page Lemaire comes off as anything but a tough guy. He's a literary fellow, un germanisant, whose first book, written while he was Villepin's chef de cabinet, sought to create the impression of a sort of poet astray in politics, craving time for quiet contemplation but sacrificing himself for the greater good. Although the sincerity of such a self-portrait can always be doubted, the presentation was appealing.

Now, however, as a Republican presidential candidate and challenger to Sarkozy, Lemaire seems to have invented a new persona for himself. The printed page is a "cold" medium, whereas the airwaves are "hot." One has only a few minutes to make an impression on the viewer or listener. And Lemaire seems to have adopted the high-decibel approach of Sarkozy at his angriest.

The problem is that he's not as good an actor as Sarkozy. He doesn't know how to modulate his vituperation. He gives the impression of an aspirant who has spent too much time with his media advisor learning the tropes that are meant to convey forcefulness, resolution, and implacability. It's as though he feels he must compensate for his background as man of letters and énarque.

Alain Juppé is under no such compulsion. He rather makes a point of displaying his mellowness, trying never to raise his voice (though not always succeeding). But his campaign manager, Benoist Apparu, makes up for it by being even more truculent than Lemaire. Wauquiez has a similar style. This is the Sarkozy effect: younger Republicans (excluding NKM, of course) seem to think that the way to seduce the base is to come on like gangbusters. But there's a phoniness about all of them that grates. Perhaps they'll grow into their roles. More likely they'll adopt new ones when they realize that the "authentic" Sarko was itself such an artifice that it can't be recreated by anyone who lacks the innate gifts of the born con man.