PARIS (Reuters) - Perched on a stack of books to reach a lectern, peeping out from under Napoleon’s hat, or scowling as flies buzz around his head, Nicolas Sarkozy will be sorely missed by at least one person if he loses France’s presidential election.
Cartoonist Plantu, whose cheeky sketches on the front page of the highbrow daily Le Monde are a fixture of French politics, loathes Sarkozy’s policies but confesses to a sort of affection for a man his felt-tip pen has lampooned for years.
From his first sketch of the young politician as a Smurf, mocking his diminutive stature, to years of portraying him as a conspiring president-in-waiting and hyperactive head of state, Plantu has had a quarter-century of fun with the conservative.
Opinion polls show Socialist rival Francois Hollande could oust Sarkozy in the April-May election. Worse, Sarkozy has vowed to quit public life altogether if defeated.
“As a cartoonist, I would lose a real character,” Plantu told Reuters, flicking through a file of old Sarkozy drawings.
“At the same time, I am one of the few people who thinks he may still be re-elected,” he said, adding with a grin: “What’s good for me isn’t necessarily good for democracy.”
Plantu’s love-hate rapport with Sarkozy reflects that of many French people who dislike the president’s brash manner and punish him with rock-bottom approval ratings yet tune in by the millions whenever he appears on television.
“He can exasperate the public. There are things people don’t like about him. But he engages with people and most people feel a connection with him they don’t with Hollande,” said Frederic Lefebvre, a junior minister who advised Sarkozy for years.
Plantu draws Sarkozy as comically short with a square head, protruding ears and heavy lidded eyes. Sometimes his tongue sticks out, in a sign of concentration or goofiness.
Sometimes he has a funnel on his head — a sign of insanity harking back to when the mentally ill had their brains drained. Other times he carries the “Hand of Justice”, a royal scepter that signifies ultimate power over the legal system.
When France lost its triple-A credit rating in January, Plantu drew a washed-out Sarkozy hanging in his presidential sash from a clothes line, his suit jacket gripped by three A-shaped pegs.
This week, as one opinion poll showed Sarkozy overtaking Hollande for the first time, Plantu drew his anti-hero knee-high and gleeful in a child’s sailor suit, poking his tongue out at Hollande as he clasped the hand of first lady Carla Bruni, who cooed that her “cutie-pie” had taken the lead.
“For me, Sarkozy is just as I draw him, that’s exactly how he is,” Plantu said, bursting into laughter.
Sarkozy has said repeatedly that despite his unpopularity, he knows the media, at least, would miss him if he loses power.
His sharp facial features, pint size and tendency to fidget and make verbal slips, make him a caricaturist’s dream.
His challenger, Hollande, is witty in private but bland in public and frustratingly bereft of distinguishing features. Plantu draws him as gormless, bespectacled and bashful, with sweat droplets pouring off his forehead.
He goes further with Sarkozy, who ever since saying years ago that he “spoke from the gut” has been depicted with flies circling his head as if they were buzzing over innards.
“Cartoonists ... have not exactly treated me kindly,” Sarkozy reflected in his 2007 book “Testimony”. “I’ve been caricatured in every way. My private life, my appearance, my words and my politics have all been covered. They’ve tackled everything and not always very elegantly. It often hurt.”
Plantu, 59, roars with laughter as he recounts angry calls from the presidential palace, often focused on the flies.
“Once I drew 15 flies. The editor called me in and said, look, let’s agree that you’ll do three and no more. Then another time I drew 10 and he yelled at me: Plantu, we agreed on three!”
As the election race heats up, other satirists are enjoying what may be their last weeks of poking fun at the president.
Cabu, short for Jean Cabut, always draws Sarkozy with little devil’s horns for the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine.
Puppet-based satirical TV news show “Les Guignols de l’Info” has run a spoof election campaign ad in which Sarkozy and his team sing to a pop tune: “We’re so sorry! It’s not our fault, it’s the crisis!”
Plantu, born Jean Plantureux, studied medicine but preferred doodling. He took drawing classes and got his break with Le Monde when he was 21, at the height of the Vietnam war.
His debut 1972 cartoon with the paper featured a dove flying with a question mark in its beak in place of an olive branch.
In 1973, he depicted Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile as a firing squad victim roped to an outline of the country.
He won his daily slot on Le Monde’s front page in 1985, elevating him to one of Europe’s most prominent cartoonists. He also has a full page in the weekly news magazine L’Express.
Plantu is best known abroad for his “Cartooning for Peace” initiative, backed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The international grouping of cartoonists campaigns for tolerance, press freedom, human rights and peace.
In that vein, Plantu once persuaded Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres to sign a cartoon on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But for Le Monde readers he is where they go first for a daily chuckle at their politicians’ foibles.
Incredibly, Plantu has only met Sarkozy once — when the future president was a conservative student activist in the 1970s — but he quickly made up his mind about the man.
“He was so irritating. I nearly killed him, he wound me up so much. Just a kid, yet so self-important. It was written all over him that he wanted to be president,” Plantu recalls.
When Sarkozy ditched his mentor Jacques Chirac to back a rival in the 1995 election, Plantu depicted him as the comic-strip anti-hero “Iznogoud”, a wicked second-in-command always scheming to oust the Caliph.
Mindful that Hollande may soon be his new star character, Plantu is focusing more on the left-winger. Le Monde now gets more phone calls from Socialist Party headquarters than from the presidential palace.
“Sarkozy has grown a thick skin,” a presidential aide told Reuters privately. “But Hollande hasn’t yet and Plantu is the only one who dares to criticize him.”
The cartoonist has had more fun with another Socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was favorite to be the party’s presidential candidate until he was arrested in New York on sexual assault charges, since dropped.
Plantu draws him as “Uncle DSK” in a semen-stained dressing gown, offering rambling armchair commentary on daily politics.
Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Paul Taylor