During Nicolas Sarkozy's first major Elysée press conference in January 2008, left-leaning editor Laurent Joffrin boldly asked whether the unprecedented powers the French President had consolidated in his hands Sarkozy had just passed constitutional reforms to expand the President's role hadn't created a veritable "elected monarchy" within the republic's democratic framework. "Monarchy means hereditary. Do you think I am the illegitimate son of Jacques Chirac, who installed me to the throne?" Sarkozy mockingly retorted, referring to his bitter relationship with his predecessor. "A man as cultivated as you saying something so stupid. Moi, a product of monarchy?"
Twenty-two months later, however, Joffrin might be forgiven for having a quiet chuckle. The Elysée has backed a move to appoint Sarkozy's son Jean to head the administration managing the business district La Défense. Jean is just 23 and a little over a year into his law degree. Appointing him to such a high-profile position smacks of nepotism, cronyism and regal high-handedness, say Sarkozy's critics. "Who for an instant thinks that the nomination of a boy entering his second year of legal studies to the presidency of an institution that manages La Défense's billions is based entirely on his merit and not at all on his last name?" asked Joffrin's Tuesday editorial in the daily Libération. "Our monarchy was elective; is it now hereditary?"
That is the question central to the growing storm of controversy surrounding Jean Sarkozy's bid to become president of the Public Management Establishment of La Défense (EPAD) the modern, tower-filled financial and corporate district just west of Paris. Supporters of Sarkozy fils note that despite his tender age and incomplete studies, Jean ran for and won a regional counselor's post in 2008 in the area that includes La Défense. The following year, they point out, he was elected president of that body's ruling center-right majority. That electoral record makes his ambition to seek the EPAD presidency which also requires him to win a majority vote by board members entirely logical. "Jean Sarkozy has been elected at every step of his career," Education Minister Valérie Pecresse noted on the television channel i-Télé Tuesday. "No affirmation is more democratic than an election," echoed former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a conservative, as he defended Jean Sarkozy's bid.
But detractors are having none of it. They note the younger Sarkozy ran for office in the same cushy, staunchly conservative Paris suburb that has served as his father's political fiefdom for more than 20 years. The right's lock on the area, they argue, means Jean's subsequent election as president of the conservative group in regional council was simply the work of officials loyal to Nicolas Sarkozy seeking to boost his son's career. That rightist domination within EPAD, opponents say, will similarly produce a pro forma election of Jean by people who view him as the second coming of his father and the right's potential star in years to come. "This is the appropriation of a country by one family and clan," said Socialist legislator Michèle Delaunay. "The Sarkozy clan is taking the entire region into its grip, on the money vault that the richest department in our country represents," accused Socialist lawmaker Manuel Valls.
Though he stayed out of the fray at first, President Sarkozy on Tuesday spoke out to protest his son's "being thrown to the wolves." Later that evening, Jean made a rare television appearance to pledge he would seek the EPAD job "to the very end." Elsewhere, he and his supporters sought to turn what opponents called his principal advantage into something he depicted as almost a handicap. "Being called Sarkozy makes things harder, which the violent personal attacks I have faced from the outset have proved," Jean told reporters. "Whatever I say, whatever I do, I will be criticized."
Or not. Thierry Solère, vice president of the regional council the younger Sarkozy sits on, sought to slap down those mocking his limited experience with this praise: "Jean is the son of a political genius, so it's not surprising he's a prodigy." Three members of the Socialist Party's youth movement then marched outside the Elysée demanding President Sarkozy adopt them in the hope that they would find work more easily.
Despite that levity, most are taking the question of favoritism seriously. An online petition protesting Jean's EPAD candidacy has drawn over 50,000 signatures in less than a week. Even members of country's ruling conservative party have voiced concerns over the mere appearance of nepotism in the affair, while others have admitted they feel Jean isn't yet qualified for such a job. A decision to stand down would be a stunning humiliation to the Elysée and a blow to Jean's otherwise impressive start in politics. But with over two months remaining before the EPAD board votes, the pressure on the Sarkozys has only begun to build.