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France, Europe, and the World in the Twenty-First Century
Few political families are as affected by their history as Gaullism. Because of the experience of war and the solidarity born of the Resistance, this is understandable. In fact, however, recent generations of Gaullist leaders did not live through these events, and yet nothing has really changed. Nostalgia for the past, the love of epic stories, and the presence in the party of mythical and charismatic speakers are all part of the Gaullist legacy.
I remain, sometimes despite myself, deeply affected by this history. I have my favorite memories and it's hard to stop me from bringing them up. One such example is my first participation in a party conference of the Union of Democrats for the Republic (UDR)—the name of the Gaullist movement in the mid-1970s—which remains etched in my memory down to the smallest detail. It was in 1975, in Nice. I had arrived, like many other party organizers, on the overnight train. It was my first visit to the city that has since remained my favorite. It was hot, the sun was shining, and the young ladies of Nice looked almost perfect to my twenty-year-old eyes. My heart was beating even harder at the thought that the following day I would have the honor of getting up on the stage to give my first speech.
It would, admittedly, be a morning speech, and the amount of time allotted for me—less than five minutes—was not exactly likely to make my appearance the highlight of the conference. But it felt that way to me! I had had a really short night. I couldn't sleep because the ideaof giving my first speech kept spinning around in my head. I had written my text on both sides of a piece of paper, violating speech-making rules that I knew nothing about.
Entering the room Sunday morning, I could hardly breathe. Everything was enormous. It was all much bigger than I had imagined. I particularly remember the stage and the speaker's podium that looked like the stern of a ship, really high up. This was an era in which the choreography and decor had to be magnificent. Proximity to the people didn't seem to be the highest priority. My heart was beating as never before, yet I wouldn't have given up my spot for anything in the world. I was excited and terrified at the same time.
Jacques Chirac was at the time prime minister and leader of the Gaullist movement. He was chairing the conference. Ten minutes before it was my turn to speak, they came to tell me to be ready to go onstage. I was sitting there on a stool that I remember was wobbly—and I was already wondering if this was a bad sign. Then Jacques Chirac called to me: "Are you Sarkozy? You are speaking for five minutes, and you won't be given a minute more than that, understood?" I went along willingly, without really having understood what he had said. My final memory is the moment when, for the first time, I found myself standing behind the lectern. I was blinded by the light of the projectors and surprised by the sound of my amplified voice. Curiously, I don't remember anything about what happened later on this day that would determine the orientation of my life. It's as if all that mattered was the starting point.
After this first meeting with Jacques Chirac, I was with him for all the big battles over the following fifteen years. These included the creation of the Rally for the Republic (RPR), which replaced the UDR as the main Gaullist party in 1976; his conquest of the Paris mayor's office in 1977; the legislative elections of 1978; his first failed presidential run in 1981 (when I was head of the National Youth Committee in favor of his candidacy); and his second failed attempt in 1988 (when I organized the main campaign meetings). Since I was too young and not yet in Parliament, I didn't play much of a role when the right was in power from 1986 to 1988, with Chirac as prime minister.
My political journey was a lot harder than people have often said and even than I have admitted. A lot of political leaders have found their vocation by working in a ministerial cabinet right after graduating from the National Administration School (ENA). It is much rarer to start as a grassroots party organizer and climb your way up, but that's the route I took. I was secretary for my constituency, then regional treasurer, then a leader of my region—I served at practically every basic level possible. It wasn't until ten years after I first started in politics that I became mayor of Neuilly, after the sudden death of my predecessor, Achille Peretti.
During all these years, Jacques Chirac and Charles Pasqua—a leading figure in the RPR—often asked me to work directly for our political movement, but I always energetically refused. This was because for as long as I can remember I saw working for a party to be like being in an intellectual prison, cut off from all freedom of choice. In this case, material dependence inevitably leads to political dependence. And I wanted to preserve my political freedom at all costs.
Thus I was never a paid employee either of the RPR or of Jacques Chirac. And that turned out well, because in 1983, the RPR didn't support me when I ran for mayor of Neuilly. In my path was none other than Charles Pasqua, already a senior Gaullist politician. I am grateful to Chirac, who didn't back me, for not having done anything to stop me from being a candidate, even though I was only twenty-eight years old. This independence also served me well a second time, in 1988, when I decided to run for Parliament against the incumbent deputy Florence d'Harcourt, to whom Chirac had already pledged the RPR's support.Testimony
France, Europe, and the World in the Twenty-First Century. Copyright © by Nicolas Sarkozy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.