Political Pinups: Putin vs. Sarkozy

In an age when male presidential candidates are pilloried for paying too much attention to appearance, it is perhaps surprising that bare-chested pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin on holiday have drawn so much comment — largely positive — from the Russian media, public and blogosphere.

Wednesday, the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda even published a "how to get a body like Putin" exercise guide, accompanied by a huge color photograph of him.

According to reporters at the paper, female visitors to its Web site had posted comments full of admiration for the Russian leader's "vigorous torso." They "were screaming with delight and showering [him] with compliments," the paper reported.

And the approving cheers are apparently not limited to women. Russian gay chat rooms and blogs also expressed appreciation for the photographs, with some bloggers speculating that, by stripping off his shirt, the president was somehow asking for greater tolerance of homosexuality in Russia.

The Kremlin, which has prominently displayed the images of a bare-chested Putin on its official Web site, has not commented on such conjecture, but that hasn't stopped the Russian media or the public from paying rapt attention to these pictures.

Locals Offer Glowing Reviews

When ABC News spoke to Moscovites about the photographs, all the women, regardless of age or background, seemed to agree on one thing: The Russian president is looking good.

Elena, a 20-something secretary, looked at the pictures and said, "I think it's great. I think he's attractive."

An elegantly dressed older woman was a touch more forthcoming about her reaction to the photographs: "If I were 10 years younger …"

And, according to radio journalist Lyuda, "All the 20- and 30-something girls in my office thought the president looked very sexy."

Even men acknowledged a grudging admiration for their athletic leader. Sergei, a security guard working in Moscow, said, "This is a good photo. It shows how sportive he is."

Sarkozy Not Such a Hit

Sadly, not every world leader has been lucky enough to receive the same flattering attention to his physique.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy was recently photographed canoeing during his vacation in New Hampshire. But, in a move usually reserved for Hollywood actresses, the picture was airbrushed to make the bare-chested president appear more svelte before being published in the French magazine Paris Match.

A week later, rival publication L'Express printed before and after pictures showing what it called the miraculous disappearance of "the love handles that were slightly weighing down the figure of Nicolas Sarkozy."

In response, Paris Match told L'Express that "the president's seating position made the bulge look more prominent." The magazine claimed to have "adjusted the lighting of the picture" and said that "the correction was exaggerated during the printing process," making the president look significantly slimmer.

In his weekly news briefing today, Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon said that he had given "no instructions" regarding the touch-up.

"Concerning the president," he said, "the only line we work on is the political and diplomatic one. As for the rest, we are not very Photoshop literate!"

In an interview with ABC News, a spokesperson for the Elysee Presidential Palace said, "We never asked for anything" from Paris Match.

But, according to French sports photographer Marie Heurtier, such "retouching has become very common."

"In my job, I often retouch close shots, especially if the subject has a big pimple in the middle of his face!" she told ABC News. "We don't ask, we just do it. And it's assumed that we do it."

"Of course," she said in the case of Sarkozy, "we always see him working out and jogging, so when, on the first picture we have of him sitting down, he has love handles. It's embarrassing for him."

Putin Careful of Public Persona

Such awkward moments are what Putin hopes to avoid, by managing his appearances carefully.

While his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was often pictured as a drunk and often embarrassing head of state, Putin strives to appear calm, collected and physically fit.

During a state visit to Japan, for instance, the Russian leader — a black belt in judo — decided to demonstrate one of his judo moves, a harai goshi, otherwise known as a sweeping hip throw. It was a far cry from the days of Yeltsin, a man known more for his love of alcohol than athletics.

In 2002, the Russian girl band Singing Together even released a hit single in deference to its president, with lyrics that said, "I want a man who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't beat me. I want a man like Putin."

The recent photographs of him wearing fatigues while rafting and fishing on vacation in the mountainous southern region of Tuva, Siberia, are only the latest in a long line of images promoting the Russian president as an example of old-fashioned machismo.

And judging from the reaction to these pictures, the public relations strategy seems to be working.

In politics at least, it seems that male vanity is not welcome. Few voters express a preference for the metrosexual over the manly presidential candidate.

Just ask U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards.

Maeva Bambuck contributed to the reporting of this story.