Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Is Sarkozy the new Napoleon?

By Hugh Schofield

They are two small men in a hurry, who each believes in his personal destiny to drag France out of chaos and decline.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Napoleon Bonaparte
Is Sarkozy "Bonaparte in a suit"?

Both are outsiders ill-at-ease among the Paris elite; they are control-freaks who interfere in every corner of government; they are obsessed by image and see the media as a vital tool of power.

One way or another, they both dream of taking the reins of Europe.

Comparisons have been made before between Napoleon Bonaparte and his 26th successor as French head of state. But now they have been given the official imprimatur of the country's leading political commentator.

In a new book, called La Marche Consulaire (The Consular March), Alain Duhamel sets out the case for seeing Nicolas Sarkozy as a 21st Century incarnation of the most influential Frenchman of modern times - or as he puts it, "Bonaparte in a suit".

"Both men intend to leave behind them a France which is no longer what it was. They see themselves as the rescuers of a great but weakened nation," Mr Duhamel writes.

It's in Sarkozy's bearing that you see the characteristics of his predecessor: the speed at which he walks; the nervous, jerky gestures; the peremptory tone
Jean Tulard
Napoleonic historian

He sees other similarities too.

Each likes ostentation and has a frank respect for money.

They adore women - though their dependence on beautiful consorts exposes a disarming psychological frailty.

Above all, the two men are hated and admired in equal measure.

Many believe they are providential heroes and overlook their flaws as the inevitable concomitants of reforming genius.

But others see them as anti-democrats whose legacy is the destruction of freedom.

'Fits of anger'

For Mr Duhamel, the point of similarity is with the Corsican general who took over as First Consul in 1800, before embarking on a vast programme of domestic reforms, rather than with the "brutal, irresistible, glorious" Emperor who was crowned four years later.

Back then, France was mired in post-Revolutionary instability, just as in recent times it has been wracked by "crisis, anxiety and disenchantment".


Height: Bonaparte and Sarkozy both 168cm (5'6")

Origin: Bonaparte's family from Corsica; Sarkozy half Hungarian and a quarter Greek Jewish

Partners: Napoleon married Josephine 1796-1810, they had no children; then Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, who bore him a son. He had several mistresses and at least two illegitimate children.
Sarkozy married Marie-Dominique Culioli 1982-96 (two sons), Cecilia Cigner-Albeniz 1996-2007 (one son); and Carla Bruni in 2007

In both instances, the country is in search of a "new social model… and a new political power bringing together authority and innovation".

"France realises it has to transform itself… but it wants to do it without new shocks or convulsions. It wants movement, but with order. And so it demands [from its leader] initiative, ascendancy but also compassion for an ambitious but anxious people," Mr Duhamel writes.

But if Mr Sarkozy and Bonaparte offer the same sense of promise for a beleaguered nation, they also share temperamental features that make their manner of government idiosyncratic, exasperating and - for their critics - even dangerous.

"Both are hot-tempered, impatient and nervous. They both throw memorable fits of anger, sometimes semi-affected. They are incapable of standing still, they think while they walk, wolf their meals, take decisions even as they speak," says the author.

France's leading historian on Napoleon, Jean Tulard, agrees that the two men have much in common.

"It is impossible to ignore a certain physical resemblance - the size, the thinness, the look in the eye," he says.

"Above all it is in Sarkozy's bearing that you see the characteristics of his predecessor: the speed at which he walks; the nervous, jerky gestures; the peremptory tone."

Opponents outmanoeuvred

During Sarkozy's 20 months in office, the Bonapartist urge to "advance on every front" has translated into an almost endless series of personally-inspired initiatives, often taken over the heads of his own ministers.

Only last week he unexpectedly announced plans for a fundamental change to the legal system, abolishing the all-powerful figure of the "examining magistrate" (ironically created by Bonaparte himself).

Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni in Brazil
Carla Bruni is Nicolas' Sarkozy's third wife

Another controversial reform currently going through parliament - of state-run television - invites comparisons with Bonaparte's obsession with image-control.

Just as the Corsican funded newspapers and inundated opinion-formers with self-aggrandising propaganda, so the president is accused of trying to muzzle the modern-day media.

"Both set the highest store by the public presentation of their action," says Mr Duhamel.

Both men are also adept at co-opting potential opponents, using a combination of flattery and political favours.

Bonaparte succeeded in neutralising the anti-revolutionary monarchists, and Sarkozy has done much the same with the Socialists - offering several leading lights a position in government.

Most intriguing of all is the two men's relationship with women.

Bonaparte was famously obsessed with Josephine, but they quarrelled and divorced after he came to power. Sarkozy went through a similar pattern with his previous wife Cecilia.

However, there the similarity ends, because where Bonaparte went on to marry an Austrian archduchess - dumpy but good for breeding - Sarkozy has found a new female totem in the form of a certain Carla Bruni.

Print Sponsor

Sarkozy announces justice reform
07 Jan 09 |  Europe
Sarkozy needled by 'voodoo doll'
22 Oct 08 |  Europe
Platini slams Sarkozy booing plan
17 Oct 08 |  African
Sarkozy sues French ex-spy chief
16 Oct 08 |  Europe
Sarkozy in civil liberties U-turn
10 Sep 08 |  Europe
Sarkozy's end-of-term report
25 Jul 08 |  Europe
Profile: Nicolas Sarkozy
26 Jul 09 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific