Nicolas Sarkozy is a short, conservative, hard-working Cassanova. He has cracked down on prostitution and negotiated with terrorist bombers to save children. He is an outsider who has worked his way in. Some think he's Napoleon, others say he's Brutus. We're just trying to get a handle on him. Here are 7 things everyone should know about France's President.
1. He Was Mayor by 22
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, did most of his growing up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy community immediately to the west of Paris. His family was not as affluent as those of most of his classmates, a fact he claims was humiliating and largely shaped who he is today. Sarkozy didn't have to wait long to get the last laugh, though. He earned a law degree, which he financed by peddling ice cream and flowers, and quickly jumped into the political arena. At just 22 years old he became a member of Neuilly's city council, and in 1983 he became the city's mayor, a position he held until 2002.
While serving as Neuilly's mayor Sarkozy also made major inroads as a national figure as well, and many Frenchmen thought of Sarkozy as a sort of protÃ©gÃ© of Chirac. In 1993 a deranged kidnapper took a group of children hostage at a Neuilly kindergarten, and Sarkozy negotiated for their safe release with the suspect, who called himself "The Human Bomb."Â (The children all escaped unharmed when police killed the kidnapper.)Â Following this incident, Sarkozy became budget minister under Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
2. He Broke his Mentor's Heart (and Stabbed him in the Back)
In 1995, Balladur ran for the presidency against Chirac. Sarkozy made the surprising decision to turn his back on his mentor Chirac and supported Balladur's candidacy. (The decision was all the more perplexing because Sarkozy had allegedly been romantically involved with Chirac's daughter Claude.) When Chirac bested Balladur, Sarkozy found himself saddled with a powerful enemy and temporarily lost his national position.
Despite this betrayal, Chirac knew that Sarkozy had a certain charisma and drive that made him a political asset. When Chirac won reelection in 2002, he decided to reconcile with Sarkozy, who took on a cabinet position as Minister of the Interior.Â France's interior minister is in charge of civil defense and law enforcement, among other responsibilities, which made it the perfect position for Sarkozy to advance his right-wing law-and-order views, including a crackdown on prostitution and a renewed emphasis on road safety. A 2004 reorganization of the cabinet moved Sarkozy to a new position as finance minister, where he helped orchestrate a government bailout of engineering titan Alstom, which had gone bankrupt.
3. He was too Good to Ignore
By this time, Sarkozy was starting to establish himself as France's preeminent conservative. He won the leadership of the Union for a Popular Movement (UPM) in 2004 and left the cabinet to assume this role. From this platform Sarkozy pushed for economic reform, including deficit reduction, a tightening of unemployment benefits for those who turned down work, and tax simplification. During this period Chirac also convinced Sarkozy to return to his previous position as Minister of the Interior.
If Chirac had his eyes on a third term, though, Sarkozy's ambitions quickly laid waste to those plans. As early as 2003 Sarkozy admitted he had his eyes on the presidency; when television station France2 asked him if he thought about being president when he shaved in the morning, he quipped, "I do, and not just when I shave."
4. He's Diminutive
Napoleon established a precedent for French leaders whose ambitions are larger than their inseams, and Sarkozy has picked up this mantle two centuries later.Â Reports vary, but most peg Sarkozy's height at 5'5" or 5'6", a marked change from Sarkozy's tall, thin predecessor Chirac.
5. But his Height Doesn't Bother the Ladies
Sarkozy has been married three times, which in itself isn't all that unusual.Â The stories behind his marriages, though, must make French tabloid writers feel like they're getting gifts from the heavens. He first married Marie-Dominique Culioli in 1982; they had two sons before divorcing in 1996.
Although Sarkozy had been plagued by allegations of womanizing, things got juicy well before his divorce. He officiated the wedding of former model Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz to French TV personally Jacques Martin in 1984 as part of his duties as Neuilly's mayor. According to later interviews, Sarkozy asked himself "Why am I marrying this woman to someone else?Â She is for me." Despite these misgivings, Sarkozy and his first wife befriended the Martins, even going so far as to become godparents to each other's children.Â Cecilia eventually left her husband to live with Sarkozy in 1988 despite the slight hitch that both of them were still married to other people. (Despite this fact, she requested that she be known as Madame Sarkozy; locals preferred to derisively refer to her as "the mayor's whore.") The two were eventually married in 1996 and divorced in 2007 while Sarkozy was in office, giving him another connection to Napoleon, who divorced wife Josephine in 1809. During the divorce, Cecilia accused Sarkozy of being a stingy philanderer. For his part, he could point to accusations that she didn't vote for him in the second round of the presidential election and had undertaken very public affairs of her own.
Sarkozy wasn't wanting for a first lady for long, though.Â By December he'd been spotted canoodling with former model and singer Carla Bruni, who's almost thirteen years Sarkozy's junior and a solid head taller.Â He was in good company, at least; Bruni's former romantic links include such luminaries as Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and Eric Clapton. The pair tied the knot in January 2008.
6. He Loves Celine Dion
Sarkozy has some highbrow hobbies, including collecting Rolexes (particularly Daytona models), but many of his interests reflect his upbringing as just another normal French guy.Â He unabashedly loves reality TV and admits that he enjoys Celine Dion. Lenny Kravitz told reporters that Sarkozy so enjoyed his album It Is A Time For Revolution that the leader penned him a fan letter about his appreciation.
7. He Has Love Handles (and they get edited out)
Sarkozy enjoys a fairly chummy relationship with the French press.Â When the magazine Paris Match ran a photo of a svelte, shirtless Sarkozy paddling a canoe on vacation in 2007, the leader looked like the picture of health.Â What he really looked like was the picture of good Photoshopping, though. French magazine L'Express later exposed the photo as a fraud by uncovering the original, which showed Sarkozy with sizable love handles hanging over his shorts. Although the incident cause a minor stir, it's easy to see why Paris Match would be a bit gun-shy about embarrassing Sarkozy; the previous year he supposedly got an editor fired following the publication of pictures of Cecilia and a boyfriend apartment shopping.