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The Italian Job

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By Stefano Casertano

The first incarnation of French President Nicholas Sarkozy was that of a polished Parisian Silvio Berlusconi. The stint was evident in Sarkozy's excessive public performances, like his Egyptian vacation in December 2008, when he wore sunglasses that would have been better placed at the front lines in Afghanistan. To celebrate his electoral victory on the night of May 6, 2007, he chose the famed restaurant "Fouquet" as the perfect venue to invite top personalities of the hexagon -- even Jean Reno, Bernard Arnault, and cycling hero Richard Virenque.

Sarkozy also married model Carla Bruni Tedeschi a mere nine weeks after first meeting her. The wonderful Italian, formerly linked to Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and a small group of intellectuals, brought Sarkozy's personal life to the headlines. Luckily, she also cleaned up the French president's personal image which had previously included a pathological passion for high-heeled shoes -- needless to say, also a Berlusconian idea. The German weekly "Der Spiegel" came to the conclusion that "President Nicolas Sarkozy has benefited more than almost any other politician from the media's growing obsession with celebrity. France's 'téléprésident' orchestrates politics like a reality show."

Berlusconi also provided the inspiration for Sarkozy's passion for controlling the national media. Although he does not have a de facto ownership monopoly over private television -- as the Italian TV-Mogul does -- Sarkozy made the best he could out of his friendships. As the newspaper "Le Monde Diplomatique" wrote, "France has produced a new model of media control, somewhere between Berlusconi and Putin. Sarkozy does not need to emulate Berlusconi in actually owning the titles: his friends will do that for him."

But what happens when Sarkozy's Italian role model begins to fade? Today, Silvio's destiny in Italy is decaying: Ousted by a directorate of conservative technocrats, he is hiding in his parliamentary seat and uncertain about his political future. His grip on the media did not help to save his position. It only delayed his decline, at the expense of Italy's wealth.

It is no surprise that, upon announcing his intention to run for a new term in office, Sarkozy resorted to new tactics. He is facing challenges that are somewhat similar to Italy's: high debt, dissatisfactory economic performance, unsolved immigrant integration questions, and a working class in revolt. His new idea? "Halal meat is the first source of worry for French people" (March 5). France has "too many foreigners" (March 6). France "does not repent the occupation of Algeria" (March 9).

According to some anaylysts, these blunt nationalist sound bites have been an answer to the rise of Marine le Pen of the National Front. Le Pen doesn't stop at criticizing halal meat; she calls for a ban. She strongly opposes the country's "Euro ideology" although, in general, she says about herself: "I am not a right-extremist: I am a nationalist and defend Republican values."

Marine Le Pen is somehow the dark side of the French Gaullian force. Sarkozy is trying to fish for her votes. But the nationalist spice in his electoral campaign may also have an Italian inspiration: Umberto Bossi's supremacist "Lega Nord." The party started off as a "secessionist" movement that demanded better political representation for the industrial regions of Northern Italy. When Berlusconi embraced that position himself to take the wind out of Bossi's sails, the "Lega" resorted to a form of "Northern Nationalism" that argued for a prohibition of the building of Mosques in Italy and performed PR stunts with racist undertones. In 2005, Mario Borghezio, a "Lega" politician, set fire to some pallets where a group of migrants was sleeping.

Some Italians could not resist these charming ideas. At the end of the "secessionist" era in 2001, "Lega Nord" had slumped to 4 percent in electoral polls. But it rebounded quickly. The new nationalist marketing strategy propelled the party to 8 percent in 2008 (national elections), 10 percent in 2009 (European elections), and 12.2 percent in 2010 (regional elections).

In 2012, Sarkozy may find a new source of inspiration in the tactics of Italian nationalists. Socialist leader François Hollande is polling at 30 percent, Sarkozy at 28 percent, and Le Pen at 15 percent. If Sarkozy can steal some votes from the right, his claim on another presidential term would suddenly become much stronger. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, well, a ghost is haunting Europe: the ghost of marketing nationalism.