Perched on a stack of books to reach a lectern, peeping out from under Napoleon’s hat, or scowling as flies buzz around his head, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be sorely missed by at least one person if he loses the country’s presidential election.
Cartoonist Plantu (real name Jean Plantureux), whose cheeky sketches on the front page of the highbrow daily Le Monde are a fixture of French politics, loathes Sarkozy’s policies but confesses to a sort of affection for a man his felt-tip pen has lampooned for years.
From his first sketch of the young politician as a Smurf, mocking his diminutive stature, to years of portraying him as a conspiring president-in-waiting and hyperactive head of state, Plantu has had a quarter-century of fun with the conservative.
Opinion polls show Socialist rival Francois Hollande could oust Sarkozy in the April-May election. Worse, Sarkozy has vowed to quit public life altogether if defeated.
“As a cartoonist, I would lose a real character,” Plantu said, flicking through a file of old Sarkozy drawings.
“At the same time, I am one of the few people who thinks he may still be re-elected,” he said, adding with a grin: “What’s good for me isn’t necessarily good for democracy.”
Plantu’s love-hate rapport with Sarkozy reflects that of many French people who dislike the president’s brash manner and punish him with rock-bottom approval ratings yet tune in by the millions whenever he appears on television.
“He can exasperate the public. There are things people don’t like about him. But he engages with people and most people feel a connection with him they don’t with Hollande,” said Frederic Lefebvre, a junior minister who advised Sarkozy for years.
Plantu draws Sarkozy as comically short with a square head, protruding ears and heavy lidded eyes. Sometimes his tongue sticks out, in a sign of concentration or goofiness.
Sometimes he has a funnel on his head — a sign of insanity harking back to when the mentally ill had their brains drained. Other times he carries the “Hand of Justice,” a royal scepter that signifies ultimate power over the legal system.
When France lost its triple-A credit rating in January, Plantu drew a washed-out Sarkozy hanging in his presidential sash from a clothesline, his suit jacket gripped by three A-shaped pegs.
This week, as one opinion poll showed Sarkozy overtaking Hollande for the first time, Plantu drew his anti-hero knee-high and gleeful in a child’s sailor suit, poking his tongue out at Hollande as he clasped the hand of first lady Carla Bruni, who cooed that her “cutie-pie” had taken the lead.
“For me, Sarkozy is just as I draw him, that’s exactly how he is,” Plantu said, bursting into laughter.
Sarkozy has said repeatedly that despite his unpopularity, he knows the media, at least, would miss him if he loses power.
His sharp facial features, pint size and tendency to fidget and make verbal slips, make him a caricaturist’s dream.
His challenger, Hollande, is witty in private but bland in public and frustratingly bereft of distinguishing features. Plantu draws him as gormless, bespectacled and bashful, with sweat droplets pouring off his forehead.
He goes further with Sarkozy, who ever since saying years ago that he “spoke from the gut” has been depicted with flies circling his head as if they were buzzing over innards.