Tell me, would you be awfully surprised if President Bush said, to a guy who insulted him while he was out shaking hands, "get the hell out of here, loser," and it was picked up on news shows across the country and was the number one video in YouTube and people were writing editorials about how unseemly it was?
That's exactly what happened in France last week; at the Salon de l'Agriculture (to get the concept, imagine a giant county fair held yearly in New York and the president and lots of politicians and celebrities attended) French President Nicolas Sarkozy was working the crowd when he came across a man who didn't want to shake his hand. "You'll sully me," he said tauntingly to the beleaguered president. "Then get the hell out of here, jerk," Sarkozy responded, without losing his sangfroid.
Or at least, that's one translation. Translators hit paydirt with this scandal, for a scandal did ensue, and even after it passed the story after the story was "who translated it best?" The variations ranged from "Get lost, jerk," "Sod-off, prick," "Get out of here, bastard," "Get lost you total jerk," "Piss off, stupid sod," "Get lost, silly bastard" (these last two thanks to the Times), "Get lost then you bloody idiot," just "get lost!" (The Guardian) Personally, I like a more Beavis and Butthead-esque "Get out of here, dumbass."
So would you be surprised? We Americans have had a couple of similar incidents in recent years; in 2000 Bush, unaware that his microphone was on, referred to a New York Times reporter as a "total a**hole." And then in 2004, in an interview with Rolling Stone, John Kerry defended his vote for the war in Iraq by asking, "Did I expect George Bush to f*** it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did."
One of the most earnest critiques I've heard about this most recent Sarko scuffle came from a journalist at Elle magazine, Dorothée Werner. "Imagine a teacher, a judge, or a manager spoke in the same way to an insolent student, an out-of-line defendant, a furious employee," she said. "What's acceptable for a private individual is not for a public figure: a judge is, of course, a man like any other but in the court, he is before all else a representative of Justice." For Sarkozy to have spoken so crudely, Werner argued, "is not just an error, but a transgression."
An open letter to Sarkozy by Sophie de Menthon which ran in Le Monde last week struck a similar note.
"All Frenchman take pride in the behavior of the one they raise to the highest level: they wish you to be better then they are, stronger, more principled, more reasonable, more courteous... in a word, the way they would wish to be... You are an icon, like it or not."
Sasko's presidential style -- which involves morning jogs and vacations in Maine -- has earned him the nickname l'Américain. Should we read Sarkozy's gaffes as an unfortunate side-effect of America's affinity for electing down-home regular guys to the presidency? Has Bush's idiocy lowered the bar for presidential behavior?
Sarkozy, who has seen his popularity decline by a third in recent polls, has admitted he made a mistake."It would have been better if I didn't respond to him," he told Le Parisien during a reader panel. However, in the same panel, the French president explained: "It is difficult even when you're the president not to respond to an insult. ... Just because you're president, that does not mean people can use you as a doormat."
But that's exactly the point. One insulting guy at a county fair does not a doormat make. But an onslaught of criticism frays presidential nerves. With all due respect to President Sarkozy, how he overcomes him is what distinguishes a great man from a pauvre con.