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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 August 2007, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
French frown at jogging leader
By John Laurenson
BBC News, Paris

The new President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has come under fire in his home country not so much for his policies as for his habit of going out jogging.

Nicolas Sarkozy jogs back to the Elysee Palace
Nicolas Sarkozy on one of his jogs back to the Elysee Palace
"Le footing" is what the French call jogging. The use of an English word - albeit the wrong English word - showing that this is something fundamentally alien to the culture, and above all the political culture, of France.

Ever since Franklin D Roosevelt had a tennis court built at the White House in the 1930s, American presidents have been keen to show their sporty side.

US leaders recognised that the values of sport - discipline, endurance, courage in the face of adversity, the will to win - were ones that statesmen should share.

The trouble with games, though, is that you could be seen to be useless at them. Make it to the White House and be exposed as a loser on the golf course - a public relations blunder of the first order. Solution: jogging - a sporting activity where the notions of winning and losing have been removed.

Carter, Clinton, Bush - joggers all. But the French - "jamais". Far more often seen eating and drinking than practising anything that could even vaguely be described as sport.

Business of legs

Then Sarkozy comes along. He does not smoke. He does not drink. And, oh dear, he jogs.

The philosopher and political commentator Alain Finkielkraut was appalled.

He appealed on television for Mr Sarkozy to stop padding off around the presidential residence, the Elysee palace, in the mornings in front of the TV cameras and the photographers from Paris Match.

First of all, there was the business of the legs.

I once went out walking in the Languedoc with a retired army general who always wore long trousers, even in the blistering heat. When I asked him why he did not wear shorts he looked at me sadly and said "there's already enough suffering in the world".

But with Finkielkraut and Mr Sarkozy's jogging it is not so much the knees, nor that experts in physical culture have pointed out that Mr Sarkozy jogs like a penguin with a weight problem.

'Devoid of spirituality'

It is the surrender of the mind to the body that Finkielkraut cannot stand.

The promenade (a French word, please note, that has made it into English) is the only physical activity that becomes the thinker. Aristotle walked. Kant walked. The poet Rimbaud liked to go for a stroll - because it makes it easier to think, to meditate, to converse. Jogging, on the other hand, is mere body management, devoid of spirituality or sensitivity, said Finkielkraut.

And he has a point.

Mr Sarkozy is not one of the philosopher-kings of whom Plato dreamt. Georges Pompidou collected contemporary art, Giscard d'Estaing wrote novels, Francois Mitterrand pondered the ruins of ancient Egypt, Jacques Chirac the mystical beauty of oriental figurines.

And Mr Sarkozy? He seems to have forgotten he is the president of the country that invented the 35-hour working week. Where leisure is - for the time being at least - imposed by law.

He is that freak of nature: the French workaholic. He is at a loss with time off.

And now it is summer. A real challenge for a head of state with a leisure problem.

To work through the month of August in Paris would be to attract attention. To be seen wandering thoughtfully through a French field might seem too obvious following the Finkielkraut injunction. So what to do? Where to go?

Sport French-style

Out in the parks, little birds are singing. Under the shade of the plane trees, with no apparent pretension whatsoever to management of the body, men play the French national excuse-for-a-sport of boules. Metal clinks gently against metal. Ice clinks gently in the glasses of "anis" (aniseed).

Game of Boule being played by people in Paris town square in 1974
Boules - also known as petanque - is a traditional French pastime

Other nations play sports where you drink after the game. France has one you can play perfectly well while drinking and smoking. A sport that requires little more effort, in fact, than standing at the bar and occasionally reaching your arm out to tip your ash.

Boules? Could boules correct Sarkozy's over-zealous, over-American image? To find out the presidential plans for the "grandes vacances", the "big holidays" as they call them here, I phone the Elysee Palace.

A lady in the press office gets all cagey: "Could we call you back?"

She could have explained why France is offering to build nuclear reactors for Colonel Gaddafi while texting a friend about lunch. But the president's plans for the holidays? She is sweating. Two hours later, a very dignified, higher-up-the-hierarchy-sounding lady calls to inform me that the Elysee does not wish to communicate on this matter.

And you can understand why.

Mr Sarkozy's last attempt at leisure came straight after his election victory when he accepted the invitation of the billionaire businessman Vincent Bollore to come and float around Malta on his yacht. He was panned in the press for going on a rich person's holiday and by cultivated people as being utterly vulgar, arriviste and crass.

The poor man, I thought, as I saw the photo on the front page of the Figaro. Mr Sarkozy was looking rather forlornly out to sea, wondering perhaps how long it was till supper. Wishing, perhaps, he could go for a quick jog.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 4 August, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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