PARIS — As France's presidential candidates tangle on the campaign trail over how to deal with the country's richest 1 percent, President Nicolas Sarkozy sometimes seems to be squaring off against himself.
His dexterity in reassessing his past words, actions, and policies -- not to mention his penchant for questioning himself and then offering bobbing-and-weaving answers -- can make him come across as a sort of political shadow boxer, swinging at his own ghosts.
One of the campaign's most polarizing issues has involved how much the government should tax the rich and how to get the rich to actually pay what they are supposed to. (French expatriates don't pay income taxes in their homeland, while many wealthy people in France benefit from international tax shelters and loopholes to greatly diminish their tax burden.)
The topic is an awkward one for Sarkozy as it leaves him in a quandary that can seem downright Dickensian. No, not of the huddled masses cast off by industrialization, or a tale of two cities and London's superelite: Sarkozy's Dickensian quandary has more to do with the various spirits of the ever-changing French leader -- the Ghosts of Sarkozy Past, Present, and Future -- a trio that greatly undermines his credibility when he promises to make the rich pay their share.
French voters remember the Ghost of Sarkozy Past as a relentlessly optimistic pre-economic-crisis spirit who fawned over the crème de la crème of French society. He was a man for whom money was a stamp of success that rewarded effort and risk-taking. That Sarkozy emerged from a poor family -- or at least the poorest family in one of France's richest neighborhoods, Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the edge of Paris. As a rising politician, that Sarkozy repeatedly bragged to journalists that he palled around with the rich industrialist owners of their newspapers, magazines, and television shows, perhaps to intimidate them before interviews. (Alain Genestar, the former managing editor of the popular tabloid Paris Match blames Sarkozy for having his friend Arnaud Lagardère, the magazine's billionaire owner, fire him after the publication ran a cover photo of Sarkozy's then-wife Cécilia alongside her lover, Richard Attias.
After his first election in 2007, Sarkozy-Past enjoyed a celebratory vacation on the sumptuous multimillion-dollar 200-foot-long yacht of his billionaire buddy, Vincent Bolloré, off the coast of Malta. Quickly dubbed "President Bling-Bling," Sarkozy's nouveau riche image was consolidated when, in the early months of his presidency, he gave a 10 percent tax break to the country's wealthiest 20,000 people (reducing their total tax burden from 60 percent down to 50 percent and adding to France's burgeoning debt). The president's main justification was not one of trickle-down economics. It was based on a sort of economic morality: All people, even billionaires, should retain at least half their gross income.
This early Sarkozy, who promised the French that they would "work more to earn more" set his own salary at more than $300,000 annually -- a 172 percent raise from the previous president. (His presidential income places him among France's 0.1 percent.) Sarkozy is fond, when it suits him electorally, of telling voters, "I have changed." There was a self-conscious turning point in his first presidential candidacy, when he needed to convince some in his party that he had matured, and again, more recently, as he has tried to persuade the French that he has calmed down and grown into a more de Gaullesque (read: grounded, detached, and judicious) president. The president's communicators and his professional collaborators attribute his latest change to the trial-by-fire nature of the presidency and to the soothing presence of his third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
It was around the time that he married the heiress-turned-supermodel-turned-pop star-turned-first lady that the Ghost of Sarkozy Present surfaced. The fashion-savvy Bruni facilitated a style and temperament makeover in a man whose driving ambition, for decades, had involved conquering power. After they met and married during the first year of his presidency, Sarkozy's flashy oversized Rolex watch was replaced with a more elegant and discreet timepiece. His over-the-top aviator sunglasses disappeared altogether. His suits suddenly fit him better and conveyed an easy stylishness. He lost weight, and his jumpiness seemed to calm.
The president also began to socialize in Bruni's artsy cultural circles, which offered him a broader and perhaps more thoughtful perspective on the political world. It surely helped that they chose to live at her expansive bohemian-flavored residence in Paris, rather than amid the stodgy old-power corridors of the Élysée Palace.