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A Father, a Son and a Political Imbroglio in France

Stéphane de Sakutin/Agence France-Presse

Jean Sarkozy, in Neuilly-sur-Seine on Monday, is said to have forced a mayoral candidate nominated by his father to pull out.

Published: February 12, 2008

PARIS — He is a lieutenant so loyal that President Nicolas Sarkozy personally rewarded him with the party’s nomination for mayor of the affluent Paris suburb that Mr. Sarkozy himself long governed.

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Pool photo by Philippe Wojazer

Nicolas Sarkozy meeting Monday with local dignitaries in Camopi, French Guiana, where he declined to discuss the political dispute in France.

But now, David Martinon, the president’s spokesman, has abruptly withdrawn from the race. And it was the president’s own son Jean who forced him out.

“The conditions are no longer in place for me to lead the municipal campaign in Neuilly,” Mr. Martinon told reporters on Monday. “I am pulling out.”

Adding to the intrigue, Mr. Martinon said that he submitted his resignation as spokesman — but that Mr. Sarkozy refused to accept it.

With Mr. Sarkozy’s poll ratings in free fall, the fiasco in the suburb, Neuilly-sur-Seine, is the freshest sign of turmoil in his presidency.

His hyperactive style, long regarded as a welcome change from the torpor of the last days of the presidency of Jacques Chirac, is increasingly seen as movement without a goal. “It’s the law of the boomerang — the harder and farther you throw it, the faster and more violently it comes back,” Le Monde wrote in its editorial on Monday afternoon.

On Monday, Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity plunged to a new low of 39 percent, according to the latest Ipsos-Le Point survey, a drop of 10 points in the last month and 19 points since December.

In a separate poll by IFOP last week, 31 percent of the French said that Mr. Sarkozy’s image had “deteriorated” since his marriage to model-turned-singer-turned-first-lady Carla Bruni on Feb. 2; only 4 percent said the marriage had improved his image.

Mr. Sarkozy is considered toxic enough that some candidates of the Union for a Popular Movement, the party he long headed, seem to be distancing themselves from him ahead of the municipal elections next month.

Some candidates, including former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who is running for re-election as mayor of Bordeaux, are campaigning without the party logo.

Mr. Sarkozy, who was mayor of Neuilly from 1983 to 2003, has promoted many of his own ministers and aides as candidates in the municipal elections as a way to project the power of his presidency and his party.

But he enraged many loyalists of his party when he handpicked Mr. Martinon, who is known to have been close to Mr. Sarkozy’s second ex-wife, Cécilia, as the candidate for the mayoral race in France’s richest town. With neither political experience nor a residence in Neuilly, Mr. Martinon, 36, was greeted during his first visit there last year with boos and chants of “Martinon, no, no!”

When a secret poll suggested that Mr. Martinon would lose a race that should have been an easy victory, Jean Sarkozy, the president’s 21-year-old son from his first marriage, and two local allies from the party announced Sunday that they were setting up a breakaway campaign.

It is highly unlikely that the young Mr. Sarkozy would have acted without his father’s blessing. President Sarkozy was conveniently on a trip to French Guiana on Monday, and when asked about the political imbroglio, replied: “No, no, no comment for the moment. Take advantage of Guiana!”

The Martinon affair is not the only familial soap opera involving Mr. Sarkozy these days.

Last week, he took legal action against the Web site of the left-leaning weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, accusing it of “falsification, use of false documents and possession of stolen goods.”

The Web site reported that eight days before his marriage to Ms. Bruni, Mr. Sarkozy sent a text message to his former wife Cécilia asking her to return home. “If you come back, I will cancel everything,” the message supposedly said.

Mr. Sarkozy’s lawyer said he believed that it was the first time that a serving president had lodged such a complaint against a news media outlet.

The legal action against the Web site has opened Mr. Sarkozy to even more media criticism, as the Nouvel Observateur reporter, Airy Routier, said he stood by his story. “For me, it is set in concrete, I have my sources,” he told Canal+ television on Saturday.

Jean-François Copé, the head of the party’s bloc in the National Assembly, appealed Sunday for a “cease-fire” between the press and the president. But the recent events have given new political ammunition to political opponents and angered members of Mr. Sarkozy’s party.

“There’s plenty to laugh about — a presidential spokesman designated by Nicolas Sarkozy, a plot, a family intrigue,” said the Socialist Party leader François Hollande.

François Bayrou, the centrist who came in third place in last year’s presidential election, on Sunday called the Martinon affair a new illustration of the “monarchical” style of Mr. Sarkozy, with its “perpetual contest of servility” involving with those in and out of favor. “It is pathetic for France,” he added. “It makes you want to cry.”

Georges Tron, a member of Mr. Sarkozy’s party and deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Draveil, on Monday criticized the nomination of Mr. Martinon as pure political “parachuting” that “shocked” him. Only months into Mr. Sarkozy’s presidency, Mr. Tron added, “We are in a political context where the loss of bearings is evident.”

How Mr. Martinon will continue to function as Mr. Sarkozy’s spokesman is unclear.

He is so devoted that he postponed his wedding last year to accommodate Mr. Sarkozy’s schedule, and he stayed in his job even after Mr. Sarkozy called him an “imbecile” during an interview on American television.

A cartoon on Le Monde’s front page showed Mr. Sarkozy holding the train of Mr. Martinon’s cloak and carrying his son Jean on his shoulders as Jean throws daggers into Mr. Martinon’s back.

“Ça va? It’s good like this, Papa?” Jean asks.

“I taught him everything!” the smiling president says.


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