Nicolas Sarkozy’s wayward 23-year-old son is being positioned as overseer of a multibillion-dollar overhaul of Paris' "Midtown Manhattan." Eric Pape on Europe’s nepotism scandal.
So you’re 23. The economy sucks. You’re foundering in school; in fact, you have to redo your second year of legal studies after requiring two stabs to complete the first year. Like many unfocused students, you might joke that you are on the eight-year undergrad plan. You’ve even dabbled in acting.
But you’ve got things in your favor, like great shoulder-length hair and a lot of energy. You have plenty in common with Daddy, at least superficially—the way you look, speak, and gesticulate, among other things—but you’re way better looking, and blond.
Oh, and your dad happens to be France’s workaholic president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and that’s where opportunity begins. You could follow him into the family business, use the Sarkozy name as a battering ram to power, and ape your father’s tactics and paths on all fronts. You could even create a powerful political alliance with dad…
Plenty of disconcerted French people fear that the charming Jean Sarkozy’s surreal political rise over the last two years suggests just such a strategy. After all, there aren’t precedents for a struggling young law student to become a top political figure in France’s most influential rich conservative bastion, as “Sarko Junior” is doing, thanks to his father’s strong political brand and his diamond-grade Rolodex.
If his pending gig at La Defense is confirmed in December, Jean will be outpacing his father’s early ascent; Sarkozy became mayor of Neuilly at the age of 28.
This week it became clear that the Sarkozys’ many political allies have opened the way for Jean’s all-but-certain election as president of the public development agency that will oversee a multibillion-dollar overhaul of La Defense, the sprawling financial district full of banking and corporate offices just beyond the northwestern edge of Paris. France’s “Midtown Manhattan” is not merely the workplace of 150,000 employees at the offices and headquarters of some of Europe’s largest corporations; it is a multi-billion-euro financial nexus. The position at La Defense is unpaid, but extremely high profile—perfect for a political up-and-comer looking to develop influential relationships and stack up chits to cash in later. (No wonder Nicolas retained his place atop La Defense’s developmental authority until 2007—when he was elected president of France.)
Jean can also schmooze corporate France as head of the conservative majority on the powerful county council in France’s wealthiest geographic department. He can access the power elite at his dad’s workplace (the Elysee Palace) and also through his young wife, Jessica Sebaoun, an heiress to the Darty electronics empire. Yes, the path to Jean’s future appears to be lined with gold, in more ways than one.
Not since George W. Bush’s youth has the political future seemed so bright for such a bumbling student. Jean’s meteoric launch began in his father's political fiefdom, when he was elected to the county council by residents of the leafy, rich Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. (Nicolas was, incidentally, long the mayor of Neuilly, and his rise to the presidency was based in large part on relations developed there.) After just three months on the council, Jean was propelled to the leadership of its right-wing majority. If his pending gig at La Defense is confirmed in December, Jean will be outpacing his father’s early ascent; Sarkozy became mayor of Neuilly at the age of 28.
France has for centuries prided itself on being a meritocracy, so many people are now mocking the prospect of a presidential spawn who craves to outdo his father on their dime, which is how many here saw George W. Bush’s political career. In the nation that long ago guillotined its royal family, the reaction to Prince Jean, as the British press dubbed him, has been biting. On Twitter, the "#jeansarkozypartout" ( jeansarkozyeverywhere) hashtag has taken off, with hundreds of suggestions for—and rumors about—the young man’s stunning potential: Jean Sarkozy will replace Ban Ki-moon as head of the U.N.; Jean will coach France's beloved national soccer team; he will model for the next bust of the female French national figure, Marianne; he has asked Pope Benedict to step down so that he can replace the old man.
A fast-growing Facebook group, with more than 600 members, suggests that France’s Mini-Me should receive the Nobel Peace Prize “more than the illustrious, unknown and incapable…Barack Obama.” And a “Jean Sarkozy Application for iPhone” demonstration video highlights the ease with which Jean Sarkozy can enter French politics, speed past competitors and—when “papa” calls—know that this is the moment when “everything has changed.”
But beneath such satire, French people are raising real questions about whether, two and a half years into his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy is giving into royal hankerings that have undermined past presidents. Opponents in the capital accuse him of using his son to orchestrate a crass familial power grab that is part of a broader effort to seize control of major development projects around Paris, to the detriment of the capital's Socialist-led government.
Some of his more hysterical political opponents have even asked whether President Sarkozy is undermining the pillars of the French republic, but concerns about nepotism are real enough. And the news of Jean's possible La Defense gig has led more than 50,000 French people to sign an online petition calling on Jean Sarkozy to decline the post, focus on his legal studies, apply for a few corporate internships and then, perhaps, re-apply “for this position that was filled in the past by your father.”
Jean Sarkozy, taking a page from his dad’s I’m-a-victim campaign playbook, suggested that most of the criticism is coming from the left, which comes across as an effort to galvanize his right-wing base. But even one of Sarkozy’s closest political allies, Patrick Devedjian—the man forced by age limits to give up the position that Jean Sarkozy is set to take over—implicitly acknowledged the unfairness of Jean’s rise by citing the 17th-century French dramaturge Pierre Corneille: "For souls nobly born, valor does not await the passing of years."
President Sarkozy finally weighed in about his son on October 13, saying that his boy had been “thrown to the wolves without reason.” The strangest aspect of this fatherly defense was that it came as part of a talk with teenage students about France’s great egalitarian traditions dating back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ended “the privilege of birth.” In France, what counts now, the president said, “is not being well-born; it is to have worked hard and proved by one’s studies and worth.” Nicolas Sarkozy made the same argument during his 2007 bid for the presidency and substantial portions of working-class France bought into it.
The president’s son, meanwhile, responded to the growing controversy by saying, “Whatever I say, whatever I do, I will be criticized. My legitimacy will forever be on trial.” Perhaps not forever—just until he forgoes his outsize ambitions or offers some real indication that he deserves to become one of the most powerful young men in Europe.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.