Jogging Sarkozy Scandalizes French Intelligentsia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been no stranger to controversy since his campaign and subsequent election to office this past May. But Americans especially may be perplexed at the latest fodder for presidential controversy in the French media: Sarkozy’s exercise regime.

Libération, the left-leaning newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, wonders (in French) if Sarkozy’s frequent workouts are part of a “right-wing conspiracy,” and many message board posters on the paper’s Web site agree. The Washington Post reported that Alain Finkielkraut, a French intellectual, recently claimed on the primary state TV channel, France 2, that “strolling” is the proper activity of the intellectual.

The alleged self-centeredness inherent in jogging comports well with conservatism, according to experts quoted in the Libération editorial. “Traditionally, French intellectuals have always had a certain contempt for the sport,” said Patrick Mignon, sports sociologist at Insep (National Institute of Sport and Physical Education). “Only the mind counts.”

According to Mignon, when jogging became popular in France in the ’80s, the French copied the American model of the sport. “It resonated with new values: emphasizing performance, valuing the body, placing importance on physical appearance,” he explained. Wouldn’t these all be “presidential values,” Libération pondered?

Charles Bremner reports in the Times of London that some French media commentators see a more insidious motive in the daily bombardment of images of the jogging president than a mere desire to show him engaging in healthy activity. Daniel Schneidermann, a media critic, told Bremner that Sarkozy uses the jogging clips as “a major weapon of media manipulation.”

This is not the first time Sarko’s personal life has been scrutinized by the media.

Alain Genestar, editor of the weekly magazine Paris Match, lost his job after the magazine published a series of photos of Sarkozy’s wife, Cecilia, with the American lover she left Sarkozy for in May 2005. She returned to him in January 2006, and only a few papers reported his affair with a French political journalist during her absence.

After that incident, the French media has steered clear of covering Sarkozy’s home life in great detail. Some see a conspiracy in this deference: Sarkozy is close friends with many of France’s media moguls, including Martin Bouygues, owner of television channel TF1 in addition to other telecom companies. Has the president received special deference when it comes to coverage of his personal life?

But it seems even Libération recognizes the ridiculousness of the “jogging is right-wing” argument. While the paper writes that totalitarian regimes have historically emphasized the development of the body, it also notes that Renaissance-era humanists preached education and development of both the body and the mind.