Seine, Sarkozy and me

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

“First that horrid little politician, and now that Irish runner. Mon Dieu!

At the time I ran my first Paris Marathon, in 2007, I was living in a satellite town called Asnières-sur-Seine just outside the city, at the northern end of the metro line 13. The ‘sur-Seine’ signifies that it’s on that river.

My runs took me along the bank of the river, so you could say that with my marathon training I was bordering on in-Seine.

Heading out, I would run south towards La Défense but at Courbevoie I would turn left and take a bridge onto an island called Île de la Jatte, a name which translates as ‘the island of the bowl’.

If you know your art, then that island will sound familiar to you. Its tranquility and beauty inspired nineteenth-century painters such as Van Gogh, Monet and especially Georges Seurat, who painted the famous scene (above) of a Sunday afternoon on the Île de la Jatte where people sat on the grass or strolled blissfully with their parasols.

These days the island is built up as a residential area, but it’s still quiet in the evenings. At one end is a running track – but because I didn’t realise that it was free to access for everyone, I never ran there. At the other end are a park, a restaurant… and in early 2007 the apartment of a certain Nicolas Sarkozy.

At that time Sarkozy was still France’s Minister for the Interior (equivalent to a justice minister or Britain’s Home Secretary) but he was also a candidate for the presidential election that May. Both statuses meant that he had heavy security outside his building. At the back, two policemen were on constant foot patrol along the riverside path. In front were policemen armed with machine guns – one at the entrance and usually two or three more in and around a police van on the street.

And so a few nights every week I ran past this cordon militaire. I often wondered if the police would ever get suspicious. However, not once was I stopped or spoken to – perhaps they just got used to me, or figured that a runner in skimpy shorts would have nowhere to hide a weapon.

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, running in Central Park in New York, November 2008

“Wheeze… splutter… must beat that Irishman who runs past my apartment”

Or maybe they knew that their boss liked running. Sarkozy has been photographed many times while out running, most notably in Central Park, New York, in November 2008 (right). “Take down any dog-walkers or door-to-door salesmen,” he probably told the police, “but leave the runner be.”

I never saw Sarkozy in this time – but perhaps he noticed me and was inspired. That April I ran a new personal best marathon time, and in May he was elected President of France. On inauguration day his cavalcade stopped as it drove up the Champs-Élysées. The newly-inaugurated President Sarkozy then got out of his car and went straight over to where standing in the crowd was the editor of the website for which I was writing – the first international leader he met as President.

“Your award-nominated Paris correspondent kicks the derrière of our French writers – and would leave me standing in a marathon”, I like to think he may possibly have said to our gaffer in that impromptu summit meeting.

It’s a presidential election year in France again and I’m running the Paris Marathon again. Socialist challenger François Hollande has lost plenty of weight and now looks relatively fit – and is topping the opinion polls. Has he too been inspired by my marathon training and decided to get in shape and race for the prize?

Some mornings I fear even stepping outside the door, aware of the turmoil and drama I seem to cause in France.

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