Sarkozy's 'Sarkotic' Tendencies

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Christophe Ena / AP

French president Nicolas Sarkozy, center, speaks with France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, left, France's Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, second left, French Protestant Federation president, Claude Baty, second right, and French Orthodox Archbishop Emmanuel Adamakis.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has always made a point of insisting he won't be hog-tide by ideology, popularity polls, or enduring taboos in his efforts to reform France. But pundits have begun asking whether in reserving himself the right to say anything, Sarkozy hasn't gotten into the habit of contradicting himself by uttering just about everything. Indeed, in the past two weeks alone, various declarations by the president have proven so starkly at odds with one another that some observers are beginning to wonder if he isn't a touch, well, Sarkotic.

Suspicions that some Sarkozy positions were manifesting split personalities increased on Thursday night, when the president reversed a spree of uncharacteristic — and highly controversial — praises of religion by declaring his devotion to the French state's tradition of secularity. During a recent trip to Saudi Arabia — a country whose official Wahhabism has been criticized from abroad as extreme and intolerant — Sarkozy claimed to know of no country whose "heritage, culture, and civilization wasn't rooted in religion". That followed his comments in the Vatican in late December, where the President praised faith and extolled "France's Christian roots". But given French laws strictly separating matters of church and state — and Fifth Republic tradition requiring presidents to put a muzzle on personal convictions, and maintain neutrality that allows them to represent citizens of all creeds — Sarkozy soon found himself facing a storm of controversy. The result: the Elysée officially declared Sarkozy's "attachment to the principle of secularity" on Thursday — a position the president also underlined during a speech earlier that day at the Elysée palace to the heads of the French Catholic and Protestant churches, plus spiritual leaders of French Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.

But even before that flip-flop, Sarkozy's sudden admiration of all things holy starkly contrasted his carefully constructed public image: the repeat divorcee, whose stint as potentially France's most eligible bachelor is endangered by what Sarkozy himself called his "serious" relationship with former top model Carla Bruni. Given that somewhat hedonistic reputation, Sarkozy's expression of newfound piousness led author and famed social commentator Bernard-Herni Lévy to muse in the weekly Le Point over "the probable stupor of Cardinals listening to the apostle of the bling-bling presidency (and) uninhibited relationship with ostentatious pleasure".

What Lévy didn't pounce on was another Bruni-related case of Sarkozy contradiction: his blatant inconsistency on just how public he wants his private life to be. During a Jan. 8 press conference, for example, Sarkozy high-handedly defended the habit of leaving his private life open to scrutiny by the press, proclaiming he and Bruni "have decided to own up to" their relationship because "we don't want to hide". But as press reports began swirling the following week alleging the couple had already secretly married in Paris, Sarkozy decided maybe he did have something to hide after all. As reports of the elopement proliferated, Sarkozy began refusing to confirm or deny the rumors.

Private affairs are not the only area where pundits have hammered Sarkozy for inconsistencies. During that January 8 press conference, for example, Sarkozy said 2008 would feature the death of France's 35-hour workweek. Less than 24 protest-punctuated hours later, he promptly did a volte-face and declared, "it's not the government's intention to abolish the legal working limit." At the same time, Sarkozy defended his controversial decision to use the corporate jet loaned to him by billionaire friend Vincent Bolloré during his Christmas vacation to Egypt with Bruni. Waving off what detractors called a conflict of interest of accepting free travel from a business mogul, Sarkozy cited the savings it represented to French tax payers who would have funded the official planes he would have used otherwise. Today, French online news source reported two official jets had escorted the president anyway.

Other conflicts are less sexy — but remain numerous. Critics argue such conflicting Sarkozy policies and waffling on positions suggest he's less the intrepid breaker of taboos, and more the standard politician than he likes to suggest. Indeed, though troubled by Sarkozy's venture into religion, Lévy suspects it was "calculated as a nod to Catholic (voters), before quickly making another, without doubt, towards the Jews, Free Masons, and Muslims". But unlike other contradictions, Lévy believes Sarkozy's professions of faith are particularly lamentable, since they "make no sense at all coming from the mouth of a leader of a secular state". Unless, of course, that leader is used to speaking out of both sides of that very same mouth.