by Malcolm Curtis|April 18, 2012|Tribune de Genève Blogs
The symbolism of the moment speaks volumes about Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s embattled leader, who faces defeat in the country’s upcoming presidential elections.
Following a campaign speech at the Place de la Concorde in Paris last Sunday, Sarkozy hurriedly shook hands with supporters standing behind barricades.
Initially, video cameras captured the flash of his fancy Swiss wristwatch as he pressed the flesh.
But then with a deft movement he suddenly pulled off the timepiece and placed it in a jacket pocket while continuing to greet people without missing a beat.
I-Télé, the French news channel, reported that an opportunistic picketpocket had apparently attempted to remove the Patek Philippe watch from the extended presidential hand, but Sarkozy was too quick (check out the video).
Le Nouvel Observateur reported that the white gold timepiece is worth 65,000 francs (about 55,000 euros).
The French magazine said Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, the former model and heiress to an Italian industrial fortune, gave him it to him as a gift in January 2008.
Brandishing the 5140 G model, manufactured by Geneva’s most prestigious watch brand, was perhaps not the best way to cement relations with the nation’s rank and file.
Sarkozy has tried, among other strategies, to rebrand himself as a candidate of the people against the “elites” – the media and the Socialist hordes – aiming to “steal” the election from him.
But the public all too well remembers the bling-bling legacy of his past five years in office.
Regarded even by many right-wingers as a vulgar upstart, Sarkozy has never lived down the evening he spent celebrating his election-night victory in 2007 in the company of France’s richest tycoons at Fouquet’s, a swanky Paris restaurant.
The image remained ingrained in the national consciousness after Sarkozy introduced generous tax breaks for the country’s wealthiest people before later cutting public services.
He has always maintained that it is necessary to provide incentives for high income earners to prevent them from moving their capital outside the country.
But as unemployment rose and the country’s finances deteriorated, his policies became increasingly unpopular.
Sarkozy’s decision in 2007 to more than double his own salary provided ready campaign ammunition for Socialist rival François Hollande, who has pledged to roll back the pay by 30 percent, if elected.
As to his watches, the president earlier sparked resentment by sporting an expensive Rolex on his wrist – before he graduated to the more pricey Patek Philippe – and by donning designer sunglasses.
Advertising millionaire Jacques Seguela, one of Sarkozy’s wealthy friends, angered many French when he defended the president’s penchant for flashy jewelry in 2009.
“If you don’t have a Rolex by the time you are 50, then you have clearly failed in life,” Seguela said in a TV interview.
The comment was seen as insensitive at a time when many French were struggling to make ends meet.
And economic conditions have worsened in France since then.
Sarkozy has zig-zagged during his mandate, offering doses of state intervention and tax incentives in a bid to boost the economy.
He initially invited Socialist politicians, such as Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, to his cabinet before sacking them in subsequent shuffles.
Sarkozy has pursued populist policies, sometimes at the expense of support from militants in his own party, the right-wing UMP.
And during the election campaign he has proffered a grab-bag of promises.
In an apparent reversal from his previous support of austerity measures for the Eurozone, he now wants the European Central Bank to stimulate economic growth, matching a position already promoted by Hollande.
Combative and feared for his sharp tongue, with the debating skills of a pit bull, Sarkozy has been rapped for his tendency to manufacture facts to fit the circumstances.
He also faces sharp criticism for behaving in a manner considered unbecoming for a French president.
In words that have come back to haunt him, the diminutive politician told a farmer to “sod off”, or the French equivalent, after he refused to shake the president’s hands at Paris’s annual agricultural fair in 2008.
The 57-year-old Sarkozy is seen by many to be simply too crass to occupy a position that is traditionally supposed to reflect the highest ideals of the French republic.
Never seen as an intellectual or as a person with an abiding interest in culture, Sarkozy suddenly acquired a taste for literature in his speech at the Place de la Concorde.
Through his speech writer, Henri Guaino, he evoked the names of famous French literary figures, such as Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand, while suggesting that nothing less than the future of French civilization was at stake in the presidential election.
One name he failed to evoke was his predecessor Jacques Chirac, a member of the UMP whose reputation for acting in a befitting manner has retrospectively grown, despite his own involvement with scandal, as people compare his behavior in office with Sarkozy’s.
Jean-Luc Barré, a writer who is helping Chirac write his memoirs, told French newspaper Le Parisien that the former president intends to vote for Hollande.
And the latest poll suggests the Socialist candidate is ahead of Sarkozy in support for the first round of voting set for Sunday, while opening up a significant lead for the second decisive round (a runoff between the first round’s top two finishers) on May 6.
For the man with one of the best watches in the world, time is clearly running out.