It was a classic “Sarko” moment. Western, Arab and African leaders had gathered in the grand dining room of the 18th century Elysée palace to approve military intervention against Muammer Gaddafi. It was assumed much talking was to come. Instead the forceful French president presented them with a fait accompli.

French warplanes were already in the air, he said. There was still time to call them back, but time was running out. Hours later, French Rafale combat aircraft indeed took out the first targets in Libya, giving Mr Sarkozy front page headlines around the world.

Such grand gestures come easily to France’s characteristically self-assured president. This, after all, is a man who as budget minister in 1993 personally took over negotiations with a heavily armed ex-convict who had taken 21 nursery children hostage in Mr Sarkozy’s political fief, Neuilly-sur-Seine.

A trained lawyer, even his enemies concede he likes nothing better than a crisis, a fight and a gamble. In Libya he has all three. With his approval ratings at an all-time low, this could be just what he needs to revive his faltering popularity at home. But if things go wrong, he risks not only embarrassment for France, but also his chances of re-election next year.

When he took office in 2007, he was the one who was going to break with the past after the stagnation of 12 years under President Jacques Chirac. Since then, his reforms have been overshadowed by the economic crisis and his own initially arrogant and flash behaviour have disenchanted his electorate. No postwar president has been so unpopular. He is widely seen, and not just by his political opponents, as hasty, authoritarian and simply not presidential enough.

Despite efforts over the past year to assume a more statesmanlike image – staying out of the media limelight, conquering his twitchy, aggressive manner and avoiding frivolous soirées – there are “still real questions linked to his style and behaviour”, says Jean-Louis Christ, a member of his centre-right UMP party.

The Libyan crisis has, in some ways, intensified these concerns. Many in his own party were shocked by his impetuous decision to recognise the Libyan opposition. It was not just that the unilateral and unexpected act had wrongfooted western allies. The president also seems to have deliberately bypassed his foreign minister Alain Juppé and followed the advice of celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had been in secret contact with Mr Sarkozy while on a visit to the rebels.

UMP members are watching fearfully as some disappointed voters threaten to defect to a revitalised far right, while others look with longing to the Socialist party’s potential Messiah, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund who polls say could beat Mr Sarkozy hands down. “The Sarkozy brand is losing momentum. It is like an allergy,” says Mr Christ.

Mr Sarkozy’s reaction has been to feign indifference, saying he is determined to press on with his reforms and with what he believes is right for France. But some friends say that privately he is bitter about all the criticism, in particular over Libya where international efforts to prevent a humanitarian disaster owe much to his drive and determination. He was, after all, say his friends, one of the few people in government at the time to advocate more forceful policies to prevent the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda.

“Bitterness is his leitmotif,” says one old friend. “He has a complex. He thinks he is not tall enough, not good-looking enough, he wants to be loved. He thinks his ministers don’t defend him enough.” When he is particularly frustrated he mutters he could quite easily live la dolce vita with his glamorous wife, Carla Bruni, who friends say has helped him broaden his interests from football and cycling to films and books.

In truth, he may always be an outsider in France. Unlike his predecessors, he never went to ENA, the elite grand école that grooms the ruling class. Born in 1955 to a Hungarian immigrant and a French mother of Greek-Jewish descent, he and his family were abandoned by his father when he was five, a rejection that is often cited as having left a scar.

His taste for politics was evident even at the age of 13, when France was swept by a springtime student rebellion against the conservatism of President Charles de Gaulle. Instead of joining the rebellious youth the young Sarkozy wanted to join his grandfather on marches to support the ageing general.

That Gaullist pride remains and even played its part in the Libyan story, according to one unofficial adviser. He describes the moment Mr Sarkozy decided to go it alone and recognise the Libyan rebel movement. “Bernard-Henri rang him from Benghazi to tell him that French flags were everywhere. He told him if he allowed a bloodbath there the blood would stain the French flag. That really affected him.”

Others say the Libyan adventure is being used to boost his presidency, just as he did with his interventions in the financial crisis and the Georgian conflict in 2008. He also badly needed to erase two foreign policy stains on his presidency – his government’s delay in supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt; Col Gaddafi’s spectacular state visit in 2007, which gave the dictator international legitimacy. The visit, with its bumper crop of arms deals, was the quid pro quo for the Libyan’s help in clinching an early triumph for Mr Sarkozy – the release of Bulgarian nurses accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV.

But the Libyan adventure remains a big gamble. “The French did not ask him to free Libya. They asked him to find jobs for their kids,” says Christophe Barbier, editor of the news magazine, L’ Express.

Mr Sarkozy’s unusual discretion since the start of the air strikes suggests he is all too aware this week’s event could decide his future.

Get alerts on Nicolas Sarkozy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article