Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Saturday, 17 July 2010 12:08 UK

Engaging with the media - Sarkozy style

Former Paris correspondent Emma Jane Kirby considers how Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed the relationship between the president and the media and the impact that has had on French journalism.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy waits to be interviewed on French television channel TF1
President Sarkozy casts himself as a bringer of change and a moderniser

In his office in the centre of Paris, Jean-Marie Pontaut, senior investigative reporter with the French news magazine Le Point, is leaning back in his chair and roaring with laughter.

"You know, I do admire certain qualities in Sarkozy," he grins, "but if I say that at a dinner party these days, then I'm clearly a far-right supporter or - at the very least - an alien."

Jean-Marie and I have been talking at length about the French leader's difficult and intriguing relationship with his nation's media.

On the one hand he is didactic and controlling, but on the other hand he has also been far more open than any of his predecessors were.

President Sarkozy saturates the small screen, whereas previous presidents made sparing television appearances, keeping their private lives and personas as sacred as state secrets.

"Take Sarkozy's anger," says Jean Marie, reminding me of the unfortunate episode a couple of years back when the French leader had been caught on camera abusing a bystander in pretty vulgar terms.

No French president has ever courted the media quite like Nicolas Sarkozy

"Sarkozy's anger is very much out there," continues Jean-Marie. "But [former President Jacques] Chirac also had a filthy temper, just never showed it in public. Sarkozy's behaviour is a bit excessive perhaps but at least he's introduced a sort of transparency into the presidency."

Media spin

No French president has ever courted the media quite like Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French leader has spent the past 30 years of his political career meticulously constructing his media image. He has even introduced a Kennedy-esque, celebrity style to formal French politics, allowing the press to photograph him in swimming shorts on the beach, kissing his bikini-clad pop star wife, Carla Bruni.

It is a brutal rupture with the reserved traditions of the old guard, but for President Sarkozy, it has been a strategic ploy.

The first general strike of his presidency was also the day that he chose to announce he was divorcing his second wife, Cecilia.

The following morning's front pages were consequently dedicated to his marriage break up while the unflattering trade unions dispute was pushed to the inner, less scrutinised sections.

(Photo from 2007) French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni watch the sunset over the Great Pyramids in Giza near Cairo
Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni began their relationship in 2007

But the president's media manipulation is not always so subtle.

Journalists who displease him are quickly replaced. Such was the fate of the long-standing anchor of France's most watched channel TF1, who asked the French leader prior to a G8 summit if he did not feel like a little boy in the big boys' playground.

The editor of the online Sunday newspaper whose blogger had circulated unfounded rumours about the president's infidelity swiftly disappeared from post, while equally an editor of a magazine who published the true story of the cuckolding of the president by his then-wife Cecilia was also dismissed.

Currently another French journalist is facing a prison sentence for using a leaked video of Nicolas Sarkozy yelling at a France Televisions studio engineer for not saying "hello".

Presidential awe

The reason that it is so easy for the president to make or break journalists' careers is that many of the leading French newspapers, magazines and private TV channels, are owned by his best friends, who also happen to be France's richest men and leading industrialists.

"France has produced a new model of media control," wrote one incredulous French journalist recently, "somewhere between Berlusconi and Putin.

"Sarkozy doesn't need to emulate Berlusconi in actually owning the titles, his friends will do that for him."

Nicolas Sarkozy has not yet announced whether he intends to stand again in the 2012 presidential elections, but if he is to win, he knows he will need the majority of the press behind him

At Le Point magazine, which is not owned by one of the president's friends, Jean-Marie Pontaut acknowledges regretfully that a certain reverence still exists between much of the French press and the president.

The Elysee Palace often names the interviewer it would prefer to host a TV programme, so the guest rarely gets a grilling.

But Jean-Marie agrees with me that the French press is fighting back: "Journalists were swept away by Sarkozy at the beginning," he says. "Now let's say they're seduced a lot less.

"He's so provocative. On the one hand he thinks he can control us and every time he does something heavy-handed to the press, the criticism against him just mounts and mounts."

Nicolas Sarkozy has not yet announced whether he intends to stand again in the 2012 presidential elections, but if he is to win, he knows he will need the majority of the press behind him.

As he battles to boost his plummeting popularity, he is working on a new media strategy.

A recent insider article in Le Figaro, the newspaper that is loyal to the president, tells us one of his top priorities is to normalise his love-hate relationship with the French press.

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