Sarkozy's dizzy spell spotlights media interest in the "hyper president"

The French president is in excellent health, but his celebrity means even minor incidents get the full press treatment.

By , Staff writer

PARIS – For Elysee Palace press handlers, President Sarkozy’s faint, or near faint, was a loser from the start: Say nothing and get pilloried for deceit. Or give details – and build a frenzy anyway.

Medical attention for French heads of state – from Pompidou to Mitterrand to Chirac – has long been conducted in the strictest realms of secrecy. Palace minders either said nothing – or out-and-out lied about the health or whereabouts of the head of state. The French didn’t know Pompidou was diagnosed with cancer until he died in office.

In Sarkozy’s case, a minor dizzy spell got jacked into national and international headlines. Sarkozy’s celebrity style – the guy was just in New York for the Mandela tribute, where wife Carla sang and strummed – guarantees attention. In a summer of Michael Jackson and what some analysts allege are overhyped warnings about swine flu, “French president rushed to hospital” is a story certain to sell.

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Even the good gray Le Monde here seemed compelled, even as the story looked less like a crisis, to treat it as one – though its full-page spread was mostly full of facts about Sarkozy at rest. (Now, that’s a story!)

There were also follies in public relations. A Sarkozy party spokesman, not a palace spokesman, misspoke: When asked if the condition was serious, he said any cardiac problems were serious – which he then retracted quickly, not having apparently thought the line through. Doctors said the condition is not related to the heart. Instant fear; instant relief.

Day 2 is spectacularly underwhelming: Sarkozy left Val de Grace hospital, smiling and shaking hands, pronounced fine after dizziness while jogging the muggy lawns of Versailles.

Sarkozy tomorrow plans to chair a Council of Ministers meeting – the subject of which will get less attention than its chairman’s color and body language.

Between now and then, no one is saying – perhaps a day of chicken soup?

A few French papers decided not to rush to speculation until something definitive happened; Liberation ran only a modest piece. Most French and British media are taking Sarkozy’s political persona as Mr. 24/7 – and reading the fainting/dizziness into it.

“Will the hyper president need to change his way of life?” asks Le Monde. We now know he’s been dieting and exercising. The New York Times's Steve Erlanger this week says wife Carla is giving Sarkozy an intellectual makeover – from a lover of bling and big watches to a lover of great novels. That alone could tend to make one a little dizzy.

Political media analysts like Christian Salmon offer that Sarkozy is living, and fainting, by the media sword. He says the palace “narrative” of a frenetic and crisis-driven problem-solver, as Sarkozy is usually portrayed in the media here, is putting the French mind into a “a state of permanent alert.”

“The Elysée has been spinning the theme of the 'brave captain,' always on the deck to fight the crisis, to such a point that a simple dizzy spell comes to look like a wreck."

Dominique Wolton in Geneva’s Le Temps says the fainting moment may work for Sarkozy in the long run – since it tends to create sympathy and “reinforce his mythology … as a superman.”

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