Sarkozy’s Cozy Ad Ties

NEW YORK Even by French standards, the country’s new president’s personal life has been a captivating soap opera, one that even overshadowed the campaign trail. A less obvious detail is the ménage à trois of advertising rivals playing behind-the-scene roles.

After Nicolas Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal on May 6, his first act as president-elect was to take a three-day holiday to Malta aboard a luxury yacht owned by none other than Havas’ largest shareholder, billionaire Vincent Bolloré. French journalists had a field day, stoking left-wingers’ criticism of Sarkozy’s cozy relationship with big business. One media executive undoubtedly enjoyed the saga more than others: Alain de Pouzhilac, the president of France 24—the Gallic version of CNN—who also happens to be the former Havas CEO, deposed two years ago by Bolloré in a corporate coup. France’s first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy, joined her husband on the Malta cruise, but her future role remains unclear; she only recently reconciled with Sarkozy after reportedly having an affair with Richard Attias, the former CEO of Publicis Events Worldwide, a unit of Havas’ largest French competitor. (Sarkozy even has family connections to the ad industry: His estranged father, Paul, became wealthy after founding his own agency.)

When a tanned Sarkozy returned to Paris on May 9 aboard Bolloré’s private jet, he was unrepentant amid media controversy such as de Pouzhilac’s France 24 airing a “Sarkozy Makes Waves” segment. In it, commentators weighed in, while the channel’s Web site splashed across its home page: “Sarkozy’s Yacht Trip Causes Storm.”

Sarkozy is a media-savvy politician who is said to have invited photographers to document his reconciliation last year with his wife, a onetime model whom he met when as the Neuilly mayor he officiated at her first marriage. (During Sarkozy and his wife’s brief separation, he had his own fling with a French political journalist.) In August 2005, Paris Match published photographs of Cécilia Sarkozy and Publicis exec Attias together in New York. The magazine is owned by another of Sarkozy’s rich friends, Arnaud Lagardère, and its editor lost his job after the photos appeared. Recently, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) called for greater scrutiny of Sarkozy after another of Lagardère’s publications, Le Journal du dimanche, pulled an article saying Cécilia Sarkozy did not vote in the final ballot of the presidential election.

(Bolloré has joined France’s ranks of media barons: He launched a French TV channel, Direct 8; a free evening newspaper, Direct Soir; and, with the Le Monde Group, a free morning paper, Matin Plus. He’s also said to be interested in acquiring the financial daily, Les Echos.)

As for Attias, in late April Publicis issued a release saying it was setting up a new events company, PublicisLive, with the exec holding a minority stake. As part of the launch, Attias will transition out of his top role at Publicis Events. PublicisLive will take over the organization of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland from Publicis Events, the prestigious account Attias brought to the company—and one which takes him a safe distance from the French capital as Publicis Events will be based in Geneva. But one source says don’t draw too many conclusions: “The French are adults about things like [Attias’ alleged affair with Sarkozy’s wife]. There’s no cause and effect. Richard is an entrepreneur who shines when he does things like the World Economic Forum.”