Tracing Sarkozy’s Greek roots

There has been much speculation, and gossip, recently about the future of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Will he marry model Carla Bruni? Will he take her with him on an official trip to India? Will Sarkozy’s ex-wife ever have anything complimentary to say about him? And on it goes. For those tired of this, a dip into the past of the French president offers a much more rewarding experience than delving into conjecture about his future. Sarkozy’s past has the potential to tell us much more about a man who could become one of the world’s most significant leaders than whether he intends to spend his future with a blonde or a brunette. This is because the man who, when he was interior minister, was the target of the abuse of disaffected migrant youths who rioted in Paris and other cities in 2005 is in fact the son of immigrants himself. The man who described the rioters as a rabble (racaille) and declared that he would adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the urban uprising is the grandson of a Jew from Thessaloniki. Sarkozy’s father was also an immigrant from Hungary. However, it is the French president’s roots in Thessaloniki that are the subject of a new Greek book titled «I, the Grandson of a Greek: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Thessaloniki» by Giorgos Anastasiadis, Leon Nar and Christos Raptis. The book, just like news stories at the moment about Sarkozy, has proved very popular. According to publisher Kastaniotis, the book sold more than 5,500 copies in its first two weeks and is in its third edition already. In many ways, the interest is justified. The story of Sarkozy’s family on his mother’s side, the Mallahs, is a fascinating one. They arrived in Thessaloniki in the 16th century and became part of the successful Sephardic Jewish community that grew hand in hand with the city, which became known as the «Jerusalem of the Balkans.» The book skillfully weaves the story of the Mallahs, who became a family active in business, religion, education and eventually politics, into the wider theme of a flourishing Jewish community and a bustling city and how both were irreversibly damaged by the great fire of 1917 and the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. This section of the book, which is its second part, works well even though it does not always flow smoothly and leaves the reader longing for certain gaps to be filled. This is partly down to the fact that detailed records of the family’s history do not exist and much of what has been written by the authors is based on the relatively small scraps that they could get their hands on. It is difficult to judge what kind of effect Sarkozy’s roots have had on him as a person or as a politician but the fact that two of his ancestors had an active participation in Greek politics – one as a senator with Eleftherios Venizelos’s Liberals and the other as an MP for Dimitrios Gounaris’s party – is, at least, an intriguing coincidence. What the book can tell us for certain is that Sarkozy’s grandfather had a discernible impact on little Nicolas becoming enthralled by politics. Aaron Mallah, nicknamed Benico, was born in Thessaloniki in 1890 but left the city as a teenager to study in France, where he became a doctor who served in the French army during the First World War. He later converted to Catholicism as his wife was a French Catholic. The book claims that Sarkozy did not find out about his grandfather’s Jewish origins until he died in 1972. He made a trip to Thessaloniki the following year to claim part of the family’s inheritance. Frustratingly, the book tells us very little about this trip. Perhaps the friend that accompanied Sarkozy on the trip or the man himself could shed more light on how the 18-year-old felt about the journey and the loss of his beloved grandfather. It was Benico, a staunch Gaullist, that would hoist young Nicolas onto his shoulders to catch a glimpse of French President Charles de Gaulle at annual parades. In his biography Sarkozy recounts his admiration of his grandfather and how he spent hours listening to his stories about the war and de Gaulle. Perhaps more importantly than playing a part in his political upbringing, Benico Mallah was a father figure for Nicolas as his own father deserted Sarkozy’s mother Andree and refused to provide any financial assistance, even though he ran a successful advertising firm. How ironic that some four decades later Sarkozy’s ex-wife should be accusing him of neglecting his children and being tight with his money. Although the first part of the book clearly establishes the influence of Sarkozy’s grandfather in his formative years, it does not really join the dots beyond that point. How did Sarkozy go from being a starry-eyed teenage idealist to a hard-nosed center-right politician? It is one of the questions that are left unanswered by the authors. But perhaps where the book falls short most obviously is in its failure to answer the question that it poses right at the beginning. What effect has Sarkozy’s immigrant background had on his political persona? Apart from a suggestion that his roots have had an impact on the French president’s negativity toward the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union, the book does not really open up other possibilities or theories for the reader. Why, for instance, does a French president with such a strong immigrant background come out with the quote «If people don’t like being in France they only have to leave. We’ve had more than enough of always having the feeling that we must apologize for being French»? Is this the voice of Benico Mallah, a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki, or of Nicolas Sarkozy the president of France? Sarkozy has claimed that he is successful because he had to travel a long way. The book is much stronger in explaining the long journey of his ancestors rather than the final steps taken by Sarkozy. Nevertheless, reading «I, the Grandson of a Greek: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Thessaloniki» is a trip worth taking.