Short-man syndrome haunts president Sarkozy

Short-man syndrome haunts president Sarkozy

Why does the French head of state go to ridiculous lengths to disguise his true height?

The following year, when screen hardman Ladd starred in ‘The Deep Six’, he stood on boxes so as not to appear smaller than his co-stars.

More than half a century on, another man who is 5ft 5in tall is similarly doing his damnedest to conceal the shortness of his stature. Earlier this week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a televised speech at the Faurecia motor technology plant near Caen in Normandy. He stood before the cameras flanked by white-coated workers and suited executives, very few of whom were taller than him. A journalist reportedly asked one of them later: “Is it true you were all picked to appear alongside the president because of your height — because you shouldn’t be taller than the president?” The worker answered: “Exactly that”. And French TV news showed 20 relatively small Faurecia workers from a total workforce of 1,400 being bussed to the press conference from other parts of the site.

Sarkozy’s aides were keen to ensure no repeat of the D-day debacle in June when, just along the Normandy coast in Colleville-sur-Mer, Sarkozy had stood next to 6ft 1in Barack Obama and 5ft 11in Gordon Brown during the 65th anniversary commemoration ceremony. French virility had been symbolically castrated by an Anglo-American height conspiracy.

Hiding will not help

But, you might well be asking, why did Sarko bother to try to conceal the truth about his height? Surely the French president or his aides must realise that any attempts to conceal his relative shortness will make him look even more ridiculous than — with all due respect — he does already? Surely someone should tell him it is madness to stand on a little box in front of a lectern to give a speech (as he did in Colleville-sur-Mer), since any snapper worth their salt was going to photograph him not from the front but from the side — thus making his pathetic ruse globally apparent?

What is it about short guys that makes them go to such great lengths (sorry) to conceal what they really are? According to Dutch psychologist Professor Abraham Buunk of the University of Groningen, tall men have greater success with the opposite sex. So pretending to be tall may confer a sexual and thereby evolutionary advantage. Larger males are more likely to win fights, are more dominant, have clout with the Ivy’s maitre d’, make eye contact with bar staff at crucial moments, and, crucially, are more likely to reproduce. True, that hasn’t been my life story, even though I would be 6ft 1in if I stood up straight, but then there’s always someone who ruins the theory. For male actors, for whom being desirable to women is obligatory to a successful career, size is everything.
There is something called the Napoleon complex, which was identified by the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, by means of which small men are supposed to overcompensate for their height by aggressiveness.

Lou Reed, 5ft 5in of handshake-crushing anger (just ask anyone who has ever interviewed him), is the present-day personification of this complex. But this theory is dubious: if, over time, short men are known to overcompensate for their smallness by being aggressive, surely taller men, annoyed with being duffed up by short, inadequate blokes, will themselves turn aggressive so they don’t get picked on so much, thus confounding the theory. Also, the theory is all but sunk by counter-examples: true, Stalin was 5ft 4in, and Hitler and Mussolini were small men filled to the brim with pure evil, but it is folly to associate badness with titchiness. Khrushchev and Gandhi were both 5ft 3in and eternally occupy very different positions on the aggressiveness scale. And while Alexander Pope undeniably wrote some very biting verses, it would be a mistake to ascribe this to the fact that he did so because he was chippy about being only 4ft 6in.

But none of this explains why President Sarkozy does not embrace his manifest smallness in the way that other successful small men do. Indeed, if anyone would want to revive the Napoleon complex in order to stress parallels with the greatest and most successful leader in French history, then surely it would be Sarkozy. Better, surely, for him to kick away his elevator shoes and stand in stocking feet surrounded by six foot tall French rugby players for his next presidential press conference, and tell the world: “All right. Laugh it up. But you know, who else was small? Napoleon Bonaparte, the terror of Europe. Not so funny now, am I?”

Sarkozy may well be more impressed by the findings of psychologist John Gillis, who, in his 1984 book ‘Too Small, Too Tall’, revealed that in 21 American presidential elections from 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won 80 per cent of the time. But did the taller candidates win because they are taller? It is by no means certain.


A while ago, the great screenwriter William Goldman decided he would find out once and for all how tall screen uberhunk Sylvester Stallone was. Could it really be true that one of the most macho of movie icons was really a pint-sized poppet who might dangle from a key ring? Of course not, that would be absurd. But Goldman was concerned that Stallone had let it be believed he was taller than he was.

Goldman recalls how he discovered the truth about Sly in his 2000 book, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell? — More Adventures in the Screen Trade’. One day at the Cannes film festival, Goldman heard that Stallone was about to enter the pool at a hotel where they were staying. Goldman (6ft 1in) rushed to the pool and found Stallone barefoot, pulling a towel around him. How tall was he? “67 inches (5ft 7in), dripping wet,” wrote Goldman.
The world has changed since the real-life Rambo was in his pomp and when obsessing about stars’ heights was an unusual pastime. In this rolling news, shoot-every-celeb-from-every-angle world, in which many websites are devoted entirely to determining famous people’s heights (just make one of your bookmarks — you know you want to), it would be hard for anyone to conceal their true height for very long, be they movie star or French president. This is why Sarkozy must stop worrying about his height and embrace it publicly. He must be more like Ronnie Corbett, who once said: “I’m so short, I’m the only person in the UK with a full-length photo in their passport.” Now that would show Sarkozy to be a big man.