The Elysée Palace is austere yet imperious, as befits the official residence and workplace of the French President. The stones crunch loudly underfoot as the visitor traverses the palace's large circular court yard, hanging a hard right once in the building towards a pair of hardwood floor antechambers past the carpeted marble staircase that head up to the presidential offices. Beyond the antechamber doors was the Salle des Fêtes and its trusty "gilt trip": the dizzying effect brought on by the gold leaf covering the ceiling molding, wainscoting, wall panels, pillars, and even embroidered into the faded burgundy-colored curtains.
In a tradition followed by Jacques Chirac and fellow former French Presidents, a day in early January saw a select group of journalists and media mavens invited to the Elysée palace and plied with the finest food and libation the French Republic could offer. The gathering was part of the president's ceremonial New Years voeux, or greetings. Invitations to the event were as coveted as they were lavishly exploited, with a few of the more audacious (and feckless) guests even known to prolong the late-morning event well into the afternoon. But all that luxurious gadding-about is over. Under no nonsense French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the Elysée voeux on Jan. 8 turned into different kind event altogether: just another day of work for any journalists who'd come hear him speak.
And come they did. An estimated 600 members of the media from 48 countries packed into the Elysée's cavernous Salle des Fetes reception room to partake in Sarkozy's first full-blown solo press conference since winning the presidency in May 2007. Strolling in a stylishly five minutes late, Sarkozy took position behind a rostrum tucked between two ancient wall tapestries, and sent the nearly 300-year-old room booming with an hour-long speech on how he plans to modernize France. With ceiling paintings of adoring cherubim and angelic figures gazing fondly upon him (including one altered from the original, and now holding a French tricolor flag aloft), Sarkozy then took an additional hour of questions. His replies often came as a tart blend of humor, dramatics, revival-meeting appeals for support, and aggressive defense of his government and policies that frequently morphed into mocking counterattack.
It was not, in other words, the polite New Year greetings, standard 30-minute presidential bloviation, and general rush for the food and drink tables of the Chirac-era voeux. "Most people were surprised with the violence of his replies," says Canal Plus TV reporter Franĉois-Xavier Rigot, who interviewed fellow journalists for their impressions as they exited the Elysée. "The pleasant, social aspect of the voeux are history: Sarkozy is after an American-style relationship with the press."
"Traditionally this event has been about burying the hatchet for a day, trading New Years wishes, and being hosted to drinks and good food after paying the price of a short presidential speech!" says Mireille Lemaresquier, chief correspondent for international news at radio station France Info. As president of the Association of Presidential Press Corps Journalists, Lemaresquier would have had the role of formally delivering the media's best voeux to the President had Sarkozy not scrapped the old format for a press conference. "Now you come, you work and if you're not careful, you get blasted by the President."
Indeed, under the glow of the massive palace crystal chandeliers and other centuries-old Elysée decoration, Sarkozy did deliver derisive and ironic remarks about his journalist guests at one point launching a vicious, personal attack against the editor of a leftist paper who asked the only tough question of the day. Just as extraordinary for such a staid venue, Sarkozy proudly took questions about his relationship and rumored marriage with Carla Bruni, calling their amour "serious" but sidestepping queries about a wedding date with the warning "there's a strong chance it will already be over by the time you find out about it".
Then, two often taxing hours after the event had begun, many journalists looked with relief to see the curtains covering adjacent areas been pulled back to reveal tables offering food, drinks, and a chance for a little of the old-fashioned revelry. By then, veteran reporter Lemaresquier had seized an opportunity to extend her association's traditional New Year's greeting. In wrapping up his press conference, even Sarkozy joked about presenting his voeux to the press even if, strictly speaking, he never actually got around to doing it.