Nicolas Sarkozy‘s advisers were so afraid of sparking his anger that they reportedly diverted his plane to avoid him seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up in the colours of the Turkish flag, according to a confidential note from the US ambassador in Paris.
A series of classified US memos depict the French president as a self-absorbed, thin-skinned, erratic character who tyrannises his ministers and staff. He is portrayed as undiplomatic, hyperactive, sometimes uncouth and in need of careful handling, despite being the most pro-US French president since the second world war and a brilliant political tactician.
A confidential memo to the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, from ambassador Charles Rivkin in December 2009, said of Sarkozy: “Elysée contacts have reported to us the great lengths they will go to avoid disagreeing with him or provoking his displeasure – even recently reportedly rerouting the president’s plane to avoid his seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up in Turkey’s colours on the visit of PM [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.” Paris’s Socialist mayor had turned the tower red and white in Erdogan’s honour. Sarkozy is fiercely opposed to Turkish membership of the EU.
The same memo worried that midway through Sarkozy’s five-year term, his staff were unwilling “to point out when the emperor is less than fully dressed”. The president “has few restraints – political, personal or ideological – to act as a brake on his global ambitions”. He promoted those “prepared to adopt his policies” and marginalised those “with a diverse view”, demoting ministers for disagreeing with him.
The memos analysed Sarkozy’s divorce, whirlwind remarriage and flashy lifestyle. They showed a French leader keen to be the personal friend of George W Bush and Barack Obama and end what one Sarkozy adviser deemed the embarrassment of damaged Franco-American relations after the Iraq war.
In 2007, barely six months into Sarkozy’s presidency, a note to Bush told of a French president repeatedly rebuking his team and prime minister, “raising questions about a thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style”. The memo warned of the impact of Sarkozy’s second wife, Cecilia, leaving him.
“On permanent overdrive and intense in the best of times, Sarkozy’s recent divorce raises questions about his ability to maintain his equilibrium and focus. Sarkozy has himself spoken of his dependence on Cecilia – ‘my source of strength and my achilles heel’, as he put it. During their separation in 2005, a highly irritable, darker Sarkozy came into view – the same one that reappeared at the Lisbon summit the day after the announcement of the divorce.” But the note predicted Sarkozy would bounce back from his failed marriage.
Seven months later, after Sarkozy’s whirlwind marriage to Carla Bruni, a note to Bush concluded that Sarkozy’s personal popularity had plummeted “mostly as a result of his ‘unpresidential’ parading of his personal life and his weakness for glitz – an image he is now seeking to repair”. It deemed the flaunting of his “billionaire-lifestyle affair” with Bruni “a major miscalculation in image management”. Another briefing on Sarkozy’s charm offensive towards Brazil suggested he exploited Bruni’s celebrity status to win over the Latin Americans: “We judge that Sarkozy takes full advantage of Carla Bruni’s individual popularity and their popularity as a couple to advance French national interests in Brazil.”
A note for Barack Obama in March 2009 summarised Sarkozy: “A pragmatist and an activist, he can be brilliant, impatient, undiplomatic, hard to predict, charming, innovative, and summit-prone.” Obsessed with bringing world leaders together, one of his weaknesses was making impulsive proposals without proper consultation, the note said.
A British diplomat warned that Sarkozy would make deals with big players in Europe without taking enough account of smaller states because he was not good at dealing with “unimportant people”.
A European diplomat at the French foreign ministry described the “tension felt throughout the room” at a meeting between Sarkozy and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, adding: “Just being in a room with Sarkozy is enough to make anyone’s stress levels increase”. His management style was exhausting and “fatigue is also a byproduct of the chaos that goes with Sarkozy’s hyperactivism on every front”. His ministers, fearing a reshuffle, were “afraid to go on vacation because something might happen to their jobs when they’re away”.
A report on Sarkozy’s African diplomacy warned of a “bedside manner needing fine-turning“. When at ease on an African subject, Sarkozy would speak freely, often straying from the official line, and have to be reined in. When not familiar with a topic or person, “he will read talking-points verbatim, with little attempt to disguise what he is doing, sometimes thumbing through briefing books looking for information while his interlocutor is speaking”.The French president “likes to get to the point perhaps to excess”, the note said. At a meeting with the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Sarkozy started talking before staff could sit down, “engaged in no small talk and the meeting was over in minutes, to the bewilderment of his visitors”. The US memo added: “Our contacts at the presidency indicate Sarkozy has since made an effort to be more ‘diplomatic’, but one wonders whether he would ever dare to treat a western head of state in such a cursory manner, under any circumstances.”
One “rare glimpse of a relaxed Sarkozy” came when the then interior minister and presidential hopeful invited the US ambassador, Craig Stapleton, to see him in 2006, to say how “proud and honoured” he was to soon be meeting Bush. After the exchange, Sarkozy, who is renowned for introducing his son Louis to dignitaries, opened the patio windows and called the nine-year-old. “Louis appeared at the threshold with a small dog at his feet and a large rabbit in his arms,” the memo said. “To shake hands with the ambassador, Louis put down the rabbit – and the dog started chasing the rabbit through Sarkozy’s office, which led to the unforgettable sight of Sarkozy, bent over, chasing the dog through the anteroom to his office as the dog chased the rabbit, and Louis filled the room with gleeful laughter.”