The Politics of Sarkozy's NH Vacation

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Neal Hamberg / REUTERS

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy paddles a canoe with his son Louis on Lake Winnipesaukee

It may be a sign of just how well France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is doing three months into his new job that the most vocal complaint by his opposition is over his choice of vacation spot. But the Socialist Party's grumbling over Sarkozy choosing New Hampshire as the place to catch his breath after a brisk spree of legislative and diplomatic coups only seemed to reinforce his standing as a leader of whom the French public can't get enough.

French media have been filled with almost daily reports over the past week from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, a lakeside a town of around 6,000 residents 85 miles north of Boston that bills itself as the oldest summer resort in the U.S. But what drew Sarkozy, who has never hidden his fascination with either the U.S. or the rich and famous, may well have been the town's celebrity visitors and mega-wealthy homeowners. Indeed, the extended Sarkozy clan is bunking down in a 13,000-square-foot home reportedly owned by former Microsoft executive Michael Appe, and which typically rents for a daunting $30,000 per week. Of course, such conspicuous consumption is still frowned upon by many in France — Sarkozy's popularity for having successfully shepherded major reform bills through parliament notwithstanding. And Socialist Party leaders may have hoped such a lavish holiday might smudge some of the luster added to the image of the President by his recent diplomatic breakthroughs within the European Union, and in brokering a deal with Libya to free six jailed Bulgarian medics.

One leftist legislator estimated that the price of that three-week rental plus airfare as exceeding a French President's official annual salary of around $99,000. The intimated subtext: to be able to blow such an indecent sum on a lark, Sarkozy has to be the kind of super-rich man who will protect the interest of his social class to the detriment of others. And charges of elitism will escalate if Sarkozy's holiday includes an expected (but not yet confirmed) private meeting with President George W. Bush at his family's nearby compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Sarkozy dismissed complaints over the cost of his trip by indicating that his digs were being provided rent-free by "friends who've been coming here for years, and who have invited me." But that was grist to the mill for some Socialists, who claimed it as evidence of Sarkozy's affiliation with the super-rich. Socialists legislator Pierre Moscovici warned darkly that the President of France "is not a person like any other, and shouldn't appear as being indebted to private interests." Fellow Socialist parliamentarian Jean Glavany also demanded "the right to know which generous donor has assumed such cost for our president, and to whom [Sarkozy] must be grateful."

In the end, however, Sarkozy — a politician who feeds on media attention — will owe a greater debt to the opposition politicians who have fueled the French media frenzy around his vacation, keeping the absent President in the headlines back home. Sarkozy revealed no details of his vacation before he left, probably aware that such coyness would make discovering and reporting his location a priority for French news organizations. Similarly, the President certainly knew the impromptu news conference he agreed to hold Sunday for the press pack that had descended on Wolfeboro wouldn't mean "you'll all be leaving me in peace to spend my vacation with my family," as he requested. (Proof of that came the following day, when an angry Sarkozy theatrically boarded a boat dogging his own, and demonstrated his toughness by ordering the two photographers aboard to clear off and leave his family alone.) It all worked to maintain Sarkozy's status as the celebrity politician the French love to see in the news.

By making the President's New Hampshire jaunt the main topic of political conversation in France, the Socialists also inadvertently diverted attention from the potentially more damaging question of the deal made by Sarkozy to free the Bulgarian medics. Though initially hailed as a humanitarian move of diplomatic genius, the accords with Libya began generating troubling headlines as Sarkozy departed on holiday, after Libyan authorities revealed over $350 million in arms and military contracts had been signed as part of the package. Even some French conservatives joined leftists expressing consternation over the alleged quid pro quo with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. But few people are discussing that deal as the French media basks in the warm sunshine of Wolfesboro, New Hampshire.