Any day now – possibly even by the time you read this, according to chirrupings on Twitter – President Nicolas Sarkozy should at last be in receipt of some good news. Police were reported on Tuesday to have established a security perimeter around the maternity clinic at La Muette, in Paris’s well-heeled 16th arrondissement, where former fashion model Carla Bruni, Mr Sarkozy’s wife, is due to give birth to their first child together.
Mr Sarkozy could do with a break – although his officials have indicated he does not intend to take paternity leave as David Cameron, the British prime minister, did when his baby was born last year. In the circumstances, that is hardly surprising. The president faces the mother-and-father of all tasks if he is to pull a solution to the eurozone crisis out of the hat by the time he hosts the G20 summit in Cannes in three weeks’ time, as he and Angela Merkel promised at the weekend.
The G20 is one very pressing deadline. But Mr Sarkozy has another difficult rendezvous on his mind: the presidential election in April next year. From this distance, re-election for “Sarko” looks like a job of Clintonesque “comeback kid” proportions. He is mired in economic crisis, some of his associates have been embroiled in allegations (strongly denied) of corruption and his popularity ratings are barely above 30 per cent. Experienced heads in Paris, nonetheless, counsel that it is too early to write him off.
The baby may help soften Mr Sarkozy’s image, although Ms Bruni said recently that she would protect her child from media attention. But the image makers do seem to have been at work with the president. In recent months he has stepped back somewhat from the front line of daily domestic politics. “It’s not his nature; he likes to be working night and day and be much more openly involved in national issues,” says a former Elysée official.
The change is seen as essential because the polls show that his hyperactivity, fondness for the high life and brusque manner rubbed many voters up the wrong way. People still speak of their shock when he was caught on camera snarling at a member of the public who refused to shake his hand to “Get lost, you moron” – and that is a toned-down translation.
More serious are a series of cases involving allegations of corruption. One involves allegations that the former treasurer of Mr Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign received an envelope stuffed with €50,000 from Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oréal heiress. It has been firmly denied, both by the individual, who no longer works for the president, and by the lady herself.
Another case, known as the Karachi affair, has led to two close associates of Mr Sarkozy being questioned about their alleged role (again firmly denied) in alleged kickbacks from an arms deal with Pakistan in the 1990s. It has led to allegations of bags of cash being carted back to Paris to fund the failed presidential campaign of the then prime minister, Edouard Balladur, for which Mr Sarkozy was spokesman. Mr Balladur denies any wrongdoing.
The Elysée is adamant that Mr Sarkozy had no involvement in any of these cases – and is furious at the perceived smear campaign behind them. But his officials admit they create a bad smell, which all piles extra pressure on the president to put the eurozone back on its feet and get the economy moving again.
If he can do that, the thinking goes, he will be back in the game. He can enter the campaign in the new year as the man who saved France from the jaws of disaster. Then his campaigning skills can take over. He will have to tack to the right to fend off a real threat from Marine Le Pen, now leading the National Front. But his supporters believe he can beat whichever of the two Socialist pretenders emerges from the opposition primary on Sunday. He can contemplate a second term.
My mother used to say that the policemen in Monaco were the most handsome in the world, clearly handpicked from central casting by Princess Grace. My 21st-century counter is the rollerblading police of Paris, who can surely claim to be the coolest coppers around. Every Sunday afternoon they escort a mass roller-skate through the city streets, clearing vehicles from the roads so we skaters can glide down the boulevards unmolested by drivers. Wearing shades, of course.