Allister Heath has gained access to the inner circle of France’s interior minister. Here, he offers a unique portrait of the presidential hopeful
It was the ideal vantage point, a large room overlooking the magnificent Place de la République, the starting point of the rally. I sat watching all afternoon as hundreds of thousands of self-righteous students began their long march across Paris, waving red flags and chanting the idiotic slogans that are de rigueur on such occasions.
But as I breathed in the heady atmosphere, both exhilarating and revolting, my mind kept returning to a series of fascinating conversations I’ve enjoyed in recent weeks with people close to Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s interior minister, with a fierce ambition to win next April’s presidential elections.
These sources — a broad range of Parisian insiders, some of whom have never spoken to the British press so candidly — convey a unique insight into the man who wants to be France’s very own Margaret Thatcher. They confirm that Sarkozy is France’s only chance for change, but that he is a far more complex character than is usually understood by Anglo–Saxon commentators on both sides of the Atlantic.
The students at Tuesday’s massive rally were demanding the withdrawal of the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE), a modest and largely stillborn reform to encourage companies to hire younger workers by allowing employers a year to change their mind without incurring huge penalties. If Sarkozy is elected, there will be many more reforms and many more demonstrations; for him, the worst of all risks is not to take any risks.
Paradoxically, Sarko — as he is usually known in France — isn’t keen on the CPE, the brainchild of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a man he hates almost as much as his arch-enemy President Jacques Chirac.