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Mr Sarkozy’s air-born bread ovens and his taste for power

April 22, 2012


On 22 October 2007, French President Nicholas Sarkozy met King Mohammed VI of Morocco to take part in the signing ceremony for a trade agreement at the Royal Palace in Marrakech. Sitting by his host, Sarkozy relaxed expansively back into his chair and crossed one leg over the other. There was a sharp intake of breath among the watching officials as they saw the sole of Sarkozy’s shoe pointing at the King. Showing the sole of one’s shoe is an insult in the Islamic world, pointing it at the King was unforgiveable. But though the economic power of France may have led the Moroccons to forgive this cultural gaffe, the US Ambassador to Morocco, writing in a leaked memo to the State Department in Washington, noted that there was ‘much gossip in Moroccan salons about a ‘too relaxed’ president slouching comfortably in his chair….’[i]

President Sarkozy’s cross-legged ‘slouch’ was not only relaxed – it was expansive – it literally took up space. This is a classic characteristic of a dominant human – or any dominant creature for that matter. Alpha types – like the male peacock fanning its tail or the gorilla swelling its chest  – physically expand themselves in a display of dominance that asserts their status.

This is exactly what President Sarkozy was doing. Yes, he was relaxed, but this was because he felt dominant and in control, and his expansive, somewhat disrespectful posture mirrored his top-dog feelings. One would guess that the various ambassadors and functionaries surrounding the King and the President may have been making themselves physically small – arms folded, legs tight together, heads slightly bowed, shoulders hunched etc. In the presence of powerful leaders, that is what we all tend to do. It shows we know our place in the pecking order.

This is apparent in any business meeting. The most senior person round the table will be the one most likely to stretch back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, stick out his elbows and stretch out his legs.  Alternatively, and more alarmingly for the juniors in the room, he might hunch forward over the table, head thrust out, hands clasped well out into the neutral no-man’s land of the table. The wary juniors, meanwhile, will be reducing their space as much as possible, just like the diplomats surrounding President Sarkozy.

Dana Carney and her colleagues [ii] from Columbia and Harvard Universities asked volunteers to strike poses for one minute at a time which were either Sarkozy-type expansive power poses, or junior diplomat-type contracted poses. An expansive, ‘high power’ pose would be leaning back on a chair with feet on the table, and the explanation given to the participants was that the researchers needed to have the legs raised above the heart so as to get proper physiological recordings. A contracted ‘low power’ pose would for instance be standing with head slightly bowed and arms folded tightly across the chest.

Even though they only held these positions for one minute at a time, the groups who took the high power poses rated themselves as significantly more ‘in charge’ and ‘powerful’ than those who took the low power poses.

This could seem like a pretty trivial finding – a minute of standing in a particular position makes both men and women rate themselves as feeling more ‘in charge’. Except that the couple of minutes in the posture also changes something else – testosterone. Among the 26 women and 16 men who took part, those who struck the brief high power poses showed significant increases in testosterone to match their increased ‘I feel in charge’ feelings, while those in the low power poses showed an equivalent decrease in testosterone which was in line with their lowered ‘in charge’ feelings.

There can be little doubt that the considerable power that goes with the presidency of France went to Sarkozy’s head, and the distorting effects of power on his judgment and the hubris it nurtured in him is probably one significant reason why he has lost today’s first round in the presidential election and looks like being the first French president to only serve one term since 1981. 

One symptom of this hubris in the context of austerity-wracked Europe is the 170 million euro Airbus presidential jet he commissioned which included   full bread ovens to ensure that the president had freshly baked baguettes for breakfast. The president was rumored to be deeply envious of the conditions in which President Obama travelled in Air Force One. Power  whets the many appetites of the powerful for money, material wealth, sex .. and more power. Some world leaders are more vulnerable to these effects than are others and there can be little doubt that another seven years in power for Sarkozy could have accelerated the excesses and behaviour patterns of his first seven years. 

So, a fervent three cheers for democracy – that most wonderful of human inventions, whose principal purpose is to protect the ordinary citizen from the distorting effects that power has on the brains of our leaders. 

[i] Guardian Newspaper, London, 30 November, 2010.

[ii] Carney DR et al (2010) Psychological Science  21: 1363


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