I knew I liked Nicolas Sarkozy, even though he is so French.
Sure, there’s something a little schmarmy about the way the new president of France met his wife. (He officiated at her first wedding — now there’s a how-we-met story you don’t hear every day, at least not on this continent.)
But besides his conservative (by French standards) politics, and the promise of less America-bashing, there is the way he looks in his shorts. In pictures of him bounding, Rocky-like, up the steps of Elysee Palace, Sarkozy has the tight, rounded calf muscles that are the mark of any serious runner. And then, well … well, actually, that’s it. The calves are the only thing about Sarkozy that make him look like a runner, if you, like most people, envision runners as tall, lanky men who hail from Kenya.
This is making the French intelligentsia go bug-eyed as they howl about the indecency of their president exposing his knees so often in public. “Undignified,” sniffed Alain Finkelkraut, a French philosopher who might be alarmed to know how much he sounds like my grandmother, a South Carolina housewife who regularly dismisses presidential candidates as “unpresidential” because of how they look on her TV.
Sarkozy, who assumed office in May, is said to be a long-time runner and thus, we can assume, is immune to armchair critics. It takes fortitude to trot around on public streets exposing one’s limbs, particularly if they’re ungainly. In New Jersey, in the 1960s, the late running guru George Sheehan used to embarrass his children by jogging through their neighborhood in shorts. “Why is your father out running around in his underwear?” the neighbors would ask Sheehan’s mortified offspring.
The sedentary French — and that would be most of ‘em — are asking the same thing of their president, which would have been fine back in the ‘60s. But a few things have happened since then, both in the world and in medical research. We live in a time in which vigorous exercise is recommended for a minimum of an hour, six days a week. The Mail & Guardian surveyed the athletic habits of ten government leaders, and of them, only Germany’s Angela Merkel does nothing but walk. Even the porcine Hugo Chavez claims to play softball at midnight.
It leads me to wonder if the old jibe about teachers is really more about the French: Those who can, do. Those who can’t… are French. It’s far easier to sniff in disdain from one’s Louis XIV armchair than to slog 5, 10 or 20 miles in the rain. “Every time you see him on TV, he’s jogging,” groused Serg Dombierer, a vineyard worker, to Reuters News Service. “He doesn’t like eating; he doesn’t like drinking; he doesn’t represent the culture of France.”
Eating and drinking… this is the sum of France? If so, it explains a lot, including why France’s gold medals in the 2004 Olympics were mostly for fencing, and why it’s been 22 years since a Frenchman won the Tour de France. When one is deficient in an area — oh, say, athletics — it’s a lot easier to mock the competent than to do something about your own failings.
Sarkozy’s critics, unwilling to huff and puff in the betterment of their physical selves, instead are huffing and puffing over the politics of running — “le running,” as they put it — bringing to mind, against my will, a vision of Pepe Le Pew. Le naptime! Le chaise lounge! I speak ze langwitch of love, not le running, la petite femme skunk!
Le lazy boys, piling on in the Times of London last week, said the president’s odious jogging habit was the hallmark of contemptible right wingers obsessed with personal performance and individualism over the public good, the public good being lethargy, I suppose. One suggested that Sarkozy stages sweaty photo-ops to manipulate the media. Others criticized his style (he leans too far forward and dangles his arms unpresidentially) and suggested he should lose some weight before trying to run. Le irony, eez delicious.
The French gave us the Statue of Liberty; she looks tired, somebody pull her up a chair. Meanwhile, let’s dispense with the silly notion that running is a right-wing conspiracy. If it were, it would be a brilliant long-term strategy for a political party’s success: Compel a couple of generations of Republicans to jog daily, ensuring their longevity and ability to procreate. It would be the reverse of the liberals’ efforts to abort themselves out of a majority.
But alas, the sport favors no ideology, even in America, where everything else seems to fall neatly in a red- or blue-state divide. Runner’s World magazine put George W. Bush on its cover once … but did the same for John Edwards. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were allowed to trot around public streets unmolested, the Secret Service in tow. Mike Huckabee is building an entire presidential campaign on his newfound ability to run.
In their book Our Oldest Enemy, John J. Miller and Mark Molesky deftly destroyed the myth of Franco-American harmony. “The French attitude toward the United States consistently has been one of cultural suspicion and political dislike, bordering at times on raw hatred, as well as diplomatic friction that occasionally has erupted into violent hostility,” they wrote.
“Nike-ollas” Sarkozy, possessed of the radical idea that there’s value in having the U.S. as a friend, wants to change that. Running the streets of Paris in a NYPD t-shirt won’t do it, but when, at some future summit, he and President Bush compare resting pulse rates, who knows what partnerships may form? The French, despite their rich food and fine wine, are much thinner than we are. They need fewer snails, more Krispy Kremes. America can provide.
Meanwhile, Serg Dombierer, the grumpy vineyard worker who says Sarkozy doesn’t represent French culture, went on to complain that the president should be drinking lots of wine because “wine is in crisis in France.” Hey, Serg, maybe your wine wouldn’t be in crisis if you guys would lose the attitude regarding Americans, those millions of health-conscious consumers who can afford to buy your wine, but won’t, as long as you so energetically disdain us.
On my bedside table, in the fearsome stack of summer reading is a book called Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running. Idly, I checked the index: No France. No surprise. Run, Sarko, run.
– Jennifer Nicholson Graham writes and runs in the suburbs of Boston.