What's behind Nicolas Sarkozy's beard?

Searching for meaning in former French president's stubble

“If I lose, I quit politics—you will never hear of me,” Nicolas Sarkozy threatened weeks before losing the French presidency to socialist François Hollande in May. And he appears to be keeping his promise, dashing off with glamorous wife, Carla Bruni, and their young daughter for a sun-blessed three weeks in Marrakech, then to the family’s seaside residence at Cap Nègre on the French Riviera. The normally hyper Sarkozy seemed determined to swap edginess for calm, and flaunt a relaxed non-combatant status with new designer stubble.

But beware vanquished politicians who grow beards. After losing to George W. Bush in 2000, a traumatized Al Gore disappeared from sight for several months, only to reappear whiskered, prompting an American commentator to postulate that he looked “like a Bolshevik labour organizer.” Gore’s beard didn’t signify penitential withdrawal, but more the return of the prophet fortified by a short period of reflection—after all, free of the trappings of office, the former American vice-president was able to set his sights on the more noble task of trying to save the planet. The scraggly white beard sported by former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn following his fall from grace also appeared to have a rehabilitation purpose—he appeared, to some commentators, less haughty and imperious, more down to earth.

Signs are that Sarkozy’s stubble shouldn’t be taken as anything but camouflage. “Never” seldom stands the test of time, and according to close friends, the former French president is “boiling with impatience” to get back into the political fray. Behind the scenes, Sarkozy has been busy plotting, searching for ways either to position himself to run for the French presidency in 2017 or to carve out high-profile roles in European politics like Tony Blair, say sources close to him; the former British prime minister has been among several ex-leaders to call Sarkozy with advice, Britain’s Independent reports.

Sarkozy has been careful to avoid expressing his preference between the candidates competing for the leadership of his party, the conservative Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), but he has lunched discreetly with one of the leading contenders, his former prime minister, François Fillon, who would likely be the most supportive of a Sarkozy 2017 run. Sarkozy has nudged ahead of Hollande in opinion polls, with nearly half the country saying he would do a better job navigating the economic crisis than the man who replaced him just four months ago. Battered by embarrassing revelations about the enmity between his ex and his current partner, Hollande has faced public wrath for rising unemployment, and a policy U-turn where he replaced promised growth initiatives with austerity measures. “Sarkozy has discovered that Hollande is his best publicity agent,” Grenoble’s former mayor, Alain Carignon, told Le Figaro.

The French media, ever fascinated by the glamour of Sarko and Carla, is also an ally, if unwittingly, with frequent coverage of the couple, prompting an irritated Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s new prime minister, to urge journalists to seek treatment. “We really need you to detoxify,” he grumbled.