Society management

Does size matter in politics? | Company

Emil Ludwig, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s biographers, noted that the French Emperor tended to surround himself with very tall men, such as members of the Imperial Guard. This apparently hurt his image, making him look short and chubby in contrast…even though he wasn’t.

When Napoleon died in 1821, he was 5 feet 5 and a half inches tall, which made him about two inches taller than the average Frenchman of the time. Despite this, even two centuries later, he is portrayed in popular culture as tiny. And of course, a whole inferiority complex based on his stature is the supposed explanation for his aggressive, cynical and narcissistic character.

A few days ago, Australian journalist Tom Gara started a Twitter thread dedicated to a new group of European political leaders who are barely taller than Napoleon. With the recent arrival of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (5’6), the club of “short kings” – which includes Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin – has grown.

“We are entering a new Napoleonic era,” proclaimed one of the Twitter users. Another reminded Gara that there was precedent for this – Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and Angela Merkel have ruled France, Italy and Germany in recent years. When someone had the good sense to ask about the relevance of height in politics – “What does stature have to do with managerial ability?” – they were quickly drowned out by an online debate over whether Macron is 5′6 or 5′7.

The obsession with height and power is not limited to Europe. Last Sunday, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – commonly known as “Lula” – won the elections in Brazil. The 77-year-old Workers’ Party leader – who is around 5’4 – will begin a third term in 2023 after beating incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, a giant 6’1 in comparison, who topped Lula in the debates.

Lula joins other small leaders in the region. Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is about his height. Chilean President Gabriel Boric is just a few centimeters taller.

Spain’s King Felipe VI and Brazilian President-elect Lula da Silva pose for a photo at Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid, 2015.Juan Naharro Gimenez (Getty Images)

However, not all of the aforementioned rulers even come close to being the shortest heads of state in history. Republic of Ireland President Michael D. Higgins – who was 5’3 when he took office in 2011 – recently joked that he had probably shrunk over the past decade, given that he is now 81 years old. North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un is 1.75m tall… even taller than former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The conservative politician has been handpicked by Iran’s Supreme Leader twice, despite his very modest height of five feet. Ahmadinejad – currently part of the regime deploying lethal force against protesters – is, by all accounts, the record holder.

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Kyiv, circa June 2022.
Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Kyiv, circa June 2022.Alexei Furman (Getty Images)

For Jorge Francisco Santiago – director of the Master in Image Consulting and Political Consulting at Camilo José Cela University in Madrid – there is no significant correlation between “centimeters and political success” – but he acknowledges that there is no no doubt “ingrained or false social perceptions of generalizations” that tend “to associate height with virility, or to attribute ambition, aggression, or cunning to short men.” But Santiago considers that size does not ultimately “win or lose elections, because the vast majority of citizens understand that political competence, honesty, empathy or even charisma do not depend on something so superficial. than the size”.

Even so, a political adviser will always take into account “the unusual physical characteristics of the politicians he advises,” Santiago explains. The reality of perception cannot be totally ignored, especially when it comes to “campaign debates and events”. Resources are certainly devoted to counteracting the significant differences in size between candidates.

“In televised debates in particular, campaign managers and image consultants fight tooth and nail to get their candidate on terms as favorable as possible.” Many things are under discussion, whether “seated or standing … to the height and dimensions of the podiums or lecterns, to the arrangement of the chairs”.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Paris, circa 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Paris, circa 2018Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

While Santiago notes that these are “perhaps not crucial details”, they are important from a political strategy and communications perspective, as was made clear during recent Brazilian presidential debates.

“Bolsonaro was interested in getting closer to Lula da Silva, even seeking some physical contact, to emphasize the size difference and thus reinforce his image as an energetic, determined and powerful man.” Lula has always avoided closeness “with the instinct of an experienced politician, who knows himself well and has got into the habit of avoiding any image that could harm him even a little”.

Santiago has so much experience with campaigns that he can spot details beyond the average observer. “When I see a predominance of low-angle images in videos or on campaign posters, I already sense that the candidate is most likely below average height, as this is one of the most common to hide it.” He thinks for a moment. “Also the use of tight clothing or shorter ties.”

Santiago recalls the 2004 US presidential election, which saw incumbent President George W. Bush (5′10) fending off a much taller challenger, Senator John Kerry (6′3). “Bush’s advisers made an enormous effort to make this difference less obvious, in a context where the Republican candidate wanted to project an image of strength, consistent with his aggressive foreign policy.”

“The Bush people found an unexpected help in John Kerry’s body language – he’s one of those tall men who has a tendency to stoop so as not to appear to abuse his height. This unconscious gesture of humility hurt him, because he looks uncomfortable in his own skin.

The cover of Paris Match 2019 featuring former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, former model Carla Bruni, in which he was made to look taller than her.
The cover of Paris Match 2019 featuring former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, former model Carla Bruni, in which he was made to look taller than her.

Height awareness was also a major factor in the 2007 French presidential election, which saw Nicolas Sarkozy (5′5) take on Ségolène Royal (5′7), “a taller than average woman”. . The Conservative candidate – who ultimately narrowly won – tried “to embody certain masculine values… the lack of stature being mortifying to him”. Sarkozy would go on to marry Italian-born model Carla Bruni, who at 5′9 made him even more obsessed with controlling public perceptions of his height.

In the end, however, unlike the presidents who succeeded him – Hollande and Macron – Sarkozy failed to neutralize talk of his size…probably because he was so obsessed with it. Details emerged in the media of how he wore lifts in his shoes and stood on his tiptoes in photographs with other world leaders. All of this made him appear as a conceited man suffering from an inferiority complex.

According to Santiago, “Any potentially problematic characteristic—whether it’s above or below average height, shyness, or a lack of conventional physical attractiveness—is challenging from the point of view of the image, but it can be countered naturally and intelligently”. .”

He insists that even the Napoleonic stereotype can be turned into an advantage: “A person who is below average height sometimes has to work harder to project their personality more effectively.” This strategy worked early in Sarkozy’s career and continues to serve leaders like Lula today. But Santiago is not sure “if it works with this new generation of shorties, like Scholz or Sunak”, who are much more reserved.

Still, if Napoleon were to stand for election in today’s democratic Europe – and if he had a team of image consultants – he might think twice about surrounding himself with bodyguards. so big.