PARIS — From elevator shoes to step-up boxes behind podiums, and even his own tippy-toes, Nicolas Sarkozy and his handlers have tried to compensate for his height – or lack thereof.
Now, a factory worker's claim that she was chosen to stand near the French president during a photo shoot because she is short is making waves on the Internet – and rankling Sarkozy's office.
The brouhaha was sparked during a visit to an auto parts plant in Normandy last week in which Sarkozy laid out his support for industry and defended his controversial plan for a "carbon tax" to help the environment.
About 20 employees in white work smocks were gathered to stand behind Sarkozy on a riser as he spoke to about 600 workers at the new Faurecia automotive parts production site in Caligny.
"I've been told you were chosen on height criteria," a reporter for the Belgian TV network RTBF asked a dark-haired woman in the lineup. "Is that true?"
"Yes, yes," she said.
The reporter, Jean-Philippe Shaller, pressed on: "That you shouldn't be taller than the president?"
"That's right," she replied, then nervously looked away as other white-suited employees looked on.
Two presidential spokesmen denied the allegation, terming it "absurd and grotesque" and saying no such order had come from Sarkozy's office.
In a statement Monday, Faurecia said it alone had organized the appearance involving employees from four factory sites in the area, and denied the president's office made any specific requests.
Two labor union leaders were quoted in the left-leaning newspaper Liberation on Tuesday as saying a hand-picked group of short workers had been requested. Neither Noel Djezairi of the Communist-backed CGT union nor Jose de Sa Moreira of the center-left CFDT could be reached for comment, though labor unions have had tense relations with the conservative Sarkozy on many issues recently.
Sarkozy regularly appears with crowds in the background, at times with people taller than he is. A spokesman said he didn't know the president's exact height, but said it is around 5 feet 7 inches.
Height has been an issue for many leaders over the years, from the famously short – Napoleon is said to have been 5 feet 2 inches tall – to the towering.
Charles de Gaulle had to struggle to find a bed that would fit his 6-foot-5-inch frame when he was on the road, and Francois Mitterrand had a complex about looking small next to the 6-foot-4-inch German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, according to Jean-Pierre Friedman, the author of books on Sarkozy and the psychology of leaders.
Questions have swirled about the exact heights of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, and whether they try to appear taller than they are. Web chats dedicated to guessing their size compare them to other not-so-tall leaders, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.
Stage-managing presidential appearances is nothing new, and Sarkozy and his aides are known to skillfully craft his image. Photographers have caught him standing on boxes behind podiums or standing on his tiptoes – such as during a photo op with his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni, and Barack and Michelle Obama in Strasbourg in April.
While Bruni told French television last year she's just shy of 5 feet 8 inches, other reports have put her at 5 feet 9 inches, and she is often photographed wearing flats in appearances with her husband.
Friedman said Sarkozy "has had a complex with his height that has given him a sense of inferiority ... so he has had to prove himself."
"Take a look at the way he walks – it's very particular," he said. "It almost seems as though he has lifts in his shoes that seem to disrupt his balance."
Sarkozy's political rivals pounced on the Faurecia appearance while his supporters rushed to his defense.
"When the French president goes on official visits throughout France, the only thing that is actually directed by the Elysee is his security," said Frederic Lefebvre, a spokesman for Sarkozy's conservative party.
Socialist party spokesman Benoit Hamon called the alleged stage management "shocking," telling AP Television News it amounted to "the politics of spectacle."
On the streets of Paris, the controversy drew a few shrugs.
"Frankly, for me, it is a little ridiculous, yes, absolutely," said Paris resident David Charley as he walked near Paris' Champs-Elysees. "If he (Sarkozy) wants to play with his image, it's allowed."
On the Net:
RTBF report, in French, http://tinyurl.com/lu3bfn