France's High-Octane Sarkozy Gets A Wakeup Call

By: AP
By: AP

PARIS (AP) -- Nicolas Sarkozy's high-octane lifestyle just hit a speed bump.

In a single week, the French leader dined with Egypt's president in Paris, popped down to the Alps to watch a leg of the Tour de France, jetted over to New York for a concert by his model-singer wife and still attended to the all-consuming business of governing a major European nation.

This weekend, however, Sarkozy collapsed while jogging in the summer heat - an episode that may prompt the intense, some would say hyperactive, French president to reconsider his schedule.

Such a change would represent a major shift for the 54-year-old Sarkozy, who has made being seen on every front a hallmark of his two-year-old presidency.

Since taking office in 2007, Sarkozy has packed his agenda with whirlwind trips abroad and made speeches before every conceivable domestic constituency. He even found time to divorce his second wife as well as court and marry his third, ex-supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni, 13 years his junior.

He also manages to make time for exercise and is regularly photographed cycling or jogging.

That's what Sarkozy was doing on Sunday when he collapsed mid-run and was whisked by helicopter to Paris' Val-de-Grace military hospital. Doctors there kept him overnight for observation, releasing him Monday after a battery of exams showed no signs of an irregular heartbeat or other cardiological problem.

In a statement Monday, Sarkozy's office said doctors had diagnosed him with "lipothymic" discomfort due to overexertion at high temperatures in a "context of fatigue linked to a large workload." They prescribed a few day's rest but no further medical treatment, the statement said.

Lipothymia is a medical term for feeling faint.

The president canceled his meetings on Monday and Tuesday but was still expected to preside over a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the last event before the government's three-week-long summer holiday.

French media was quick to blame the collapse on Sarkozy's "hyperactivity." The left-leaning Le Monde daily headlined with the question "Will the hyper-president have to change his lifestyle?"

But Patrick Balkany, a close friend of Sarkozy, hinted that the president's efforts to lose weight might be more to blame than his packed agenda.

Sarkozy's extended family might be another major cause of stress. With a much younger wife, three boys by two previous wives, one stepson and two former stepdaughters, juggling family commitments with his public responsibilities would be challenging for anyone.

Sunday's episode touched a sensitive nerve in France, where the president's health has long been shrouded in secrecy - so much so that the public didn't even learn of former President Georges Pompidou's bone marrow cancer until after he died of it, while in office, on April 2, 1974.

Former President Francois Mitterrand was dogged by rumors of health problems throughout much of his 14 years in office and ordered his doctor to systematically falsify his health bulletins. He died of prostate cancer just months after leaving office in 1995.

Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was hospitalized for a week at Val-de-Grace in 2005 for a vascular problem when he was 72, and officials never fully explained what was wrong with him.

Sarkozy, a significantly younger man in much better shape than Chirac, pledged greater transparency on heath matters during his campaign. But when Sarkozy was hospitalized in 2007 for a throat problem, it was kept secret and the public only learned about it three months later.

This time around, it was impossible to conceal the problem, as Sarkozy collapsed on the grounds of the much-frequented Chateau de Versailles. In what looked like an effort to appear transparent, his office issued a brief statement just hours after the incident.

Sarkozy's political allies, too, rushed to downplay the episode and reassure the public that the president was in excellent health. Observers said there would be almost no political fallout from the collapse.

"It will have almost no effect on his popularity rating," said Frederic Dabi, who heads the public opinion department at France's Ifop polling agency. "The French evaluate their president through economic dimensions, on his social policy (and) his political solutions to the crisis and only a little bit on his personal image."

"It's rare that a single event affects on its own a popularity rating either way," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The incident might, however, prove an excellent opportunity for Sarkozy to recast his image.

French media has reported that Bruni-Sarkozy, an Italian-born heiress, has been trying to massage Sarkozy's flashy, revved-up style into a dignified demeanor more suited to a president. Under her tutelage, the collapse just might be an excellent excuse for Sarkozy to take his frenetic pace down a notch.

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Associated Press writer Helene Goupil in Paris contributed to this report.

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