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May 27, 2005

IS FRANCE'S 'FUTURE PRESIDENT' IN TROUBLE? Nicolas Sarkozy Faces a Scandal

For the past two years, it has been widely assumed in France that the wildly popular Nicolas Sarkozy (see photo) would likely be elected the country's next president in elections scheduled for 2007. Sarkozy_3 A hyper-ambitious former hard-line law-and-order Interior Minister (where his racist-tinged anti-immigrant crusading brought him to public favor), and the former Number Two man in the current conservative government of Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin as Minister of the Economy, the very media-savvy Sarkozy gave President Jacques Chirac heartburn when, earlier this year, he was elected president of Chirac's conservative party, the UMP, with whose rank-and-file Sarkozy is incredibly popular. By seizing control of the party apparatus, Sarkozy made another Chirac re-election bid extremely dicey. Srkozychirac_cartoon_1 And public opinion polls have consistently shown Sarkozy to be the most popular politician in France -- he not only soundly beats Chirac as the choice of the right, but he solidly trounces every major Socialist politician in head-to-head match-ups. Indeed, many cultural icons of the traditional left (like the political comic Guy Bedos and the popular actor Pierre Arditi, both staples of left campaigns and protests) have publicly praised Sarkozy repeatedly. Sarkozy is a dangerous but skilled demagogue -- in France he's been called "Sarkozy l'americain" for supporting Bush's war in Iraq and for his hard-line, ultra-free-market, tax-cutting opposition to the welfare state. The last time Sarkozy was in Washington, for a summit of G-8 economic ministers, he was warmly received as a virtual future president by Condoleeza Rice in an unusual personal White House meeting.

But for the past week, there have been discreet murmurs in the French press. Sarkozy has appeared tired and drawn in public during the final week of campaigning in the referendum on the new European Constitution, on which the French vote this coming Sunday -- so much so that he felt obliged to reassure conservative supporters at a televised rally this week that "despite the rumors, I'm just fine." French television and the French print press, so far, have gone no further than to speak of "rumors of trouble in the marriage" between Sarkozy and his rather terrifying wife, Cecilia (see photo)Cecilia_sarkozy_1 , who also serves as his chief of staff, and who is noted for having thrown her weight around and abused underlings and her power during Sarkozy's two ministries (as Le Canard Enchaine has documented on multiple occasions).

Yesterday, in an interview with France3 public television, Sarkozy -- who has presented himself as a preacher of "family values" and militantly opposed gay marriage (which is favored in opinion polls by roughly two-thirds of the French) -- admitted that he and his wife were having unspecified "troubles," and asked for "respect of his private life." But, up until now, the French press (which has been extraordinarily sympathetic to the presumed future president) has been very chary about reporting on the Sarkozy couple's difficulties.

It's taken a leading Swiss daily, Le Matin, to take the lid off of what could prove to be an extremely damaging scandal for Sarkozy and his presidential ambitions. Yesterday, Le Matin published an incendiary article headlined "Cecilia Has Demanded a Divorce! -- Sarkozy has also been repeatedly unfaithful during his marriage." The article goes on to report that Sarkozy's wife has left the family home -- quoting friends of the couple as saying "she won't be back" -- and saying the breakup was due both to Cecilia Sarkozy's discovery of her husband's multiple infidelities, and her own passionate love affair with Richard Attias, a top, jet-setting executive with the huge French advertising and holding company Publicis. Madame Sarkozy, says Le Matin, asked for a divorce two weeks ago. And last Sunday, she came back to the family home to remove her personal belongings -- an act which, the Swiss paper says, threw Sarkozy into such a tizzy that he canceled a scheduled major TV appearance that evening where he was supposed to argue for the "Yes" vote in the referendum on the European Constitution, for which he has been campaigning vigorously.

One good reason the mainstream press in France has a tradition of treading very gingerly when it comes to the private lives of politicians in power: the French press, Americans will no doubt be surprised to learn, receives government subsidies. This is a tradition which, in its current form, dates back to when Gen. Charles de Gaulle's provisional government took power in war-torn France in 1944, and made it a priority to reviive a press deformed and decimated by Nazi and Vichy-collaborationist control. 90% of today's press in France is controlled by three companies, and most of the dailies they own are in fragile financial shape in the age of TV and the internet and losing circulation. They couldn't survive without the government's subsidies, tax breaks, and loans. This has consequences: for example, the fact that Socialist President Francois Mitterand was being treated for a serious cancer during the entire 14 years of his presidency was kept from the French public until shortly before the cancer killed him, although it was an open secret in political and journalistic circles (I first heard of it in the early '80s when I moved to live and work in France for a decade). Similarly, the existence of Mitterand's parallel family and illegitimate daughter -- whom he frequented with great regularity throughout his presidency and who were protected by the presidential secret services, including through illegal govrnment wiretaps and intimidation -- was another open secret the press kept mum on until Mitterand had it revealed shortly before his death: even after the late gadfly journalist-novelist Jean-Edern Halier, a former friend of Mitterand's, wrote about this abuse of government power in his iconoclastic journal L'Idiot Internationale in the mid-'80s, the mainstream press continued to turn a blind eye for years. Thus, the press's silence on the current Sarkozy matter is not all that surprising, as many powerful politicians who parade their families as electoral bait and denounce moral decadence while carrying on quite differently in private know they can do so with virtual immunity from public exposure.

Sarkozy's marital problems wouldn't be terribly interesting but for their potential, enormous political impact. If, as Le Matin affirms, Sarkozy has engaged in multiple extra-marital affairs, this would certainly reveal as rather hypocritical the ambitious pol's family-values preachings. And if Cecilia divorces him, this would further undermine his carefully constructed image (not to mention the disarray in his own political apparatus, of which his wife has been a key player and his chief of staff.) France, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has never elected a divorced man as its president. And Sarkozy has already been divorced once. To paraphrase a well-known slogan of a French government anti-alcoholism campaign -- "Un verre, ca va, deux verres, bonjour les degats" (One glass is okay, two is big trouble) -- one divorce might be forgiven, but two looks like carelessness (as Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell would have said).

A freshly-divorced Sarkozy revealed to French voters as a serial adulterer could very well lose support among the conservative rank-and-file who, up to now, have been consistently hailing him as their champion and a conquering hero. The marital scandal could well encourage Chirac to seek a third term as president despite the inevitability of a challenge from the publicly-favored Sarkozy. (Chirac has detested Sarkozy, a former protege, ever since Sarkozy years ago broke off a romance with Chirac's daughter, and the bad blood between the two men has only been accentuated by Sarkozy's aggressive and very public preparation of a presidential challenge to Chirac. In fact, Le Canard Enchaine, in its May 25 edition, reported Canard_1 that it was Chirac's staff -- and the staff of Dominique de Villepin -- who began spreading the word about the Sarkozy couple's split even before it was spelled out by Le Matin. The Canard reported that, "during the day of May 20, prominent staffers for both Chirac and de Villepin were burning up the telephones to give vivid deteails" of the Sarkozy's marital problems, adding that "this was a real campaign designed to destablize Sarkozy both in the political microcosm, nd with the press, and as well to give credibility and a large publicity to what had, up to then, only been a rumor." The Canard quotes the message Chirac's counselors delivered to those at the other end of their telephones: "This ought to teach Sarko to calm down, and also teach him not to pretend he's a Kennedy by pushing his family to the fore." More proof, if any were needed, of how deep is the bitterness between Chirac and Sarkozy.)

Sarkozy is so dangerous that, while I normally wouldn't care even if he was having it off with his dog, I'm delighted with this turn of events because of the serious political damage to him it may entail.

UPDATE: SATURDAY, MAY 28, 6:00 P.M.:  Le Monde investigative journalist Bruno Fay, on his blog, takes the same rather jaundiced view of the lack of press coverage in the Sarkozy scandal that I do, noting that Sarkozy "has made his private life an electoral argument: a TV show on the couple, Nicolas and Cecilia on the cover of Paris Match [with, Bruno might have added, 8 pages of photos of their private life], and little Louis [their son] the guest of honor when Sarkozy was crowned head of the UMP...And the French press? Everybody knows, everybody whispers, but none will give more than vague hints in print." Including, one might add, Le Monde. The tabloid press is doing a bit more: Le Parisien, the largest-circulation Paris daily, opined that "“The Sarkozys have chosen to be open in an American style and to turn their relationship into a political tool,” so it was appropriate to cover the story. France-Soir -- once the largest French daily, now barely alive with a circulation at 60,000 and falling under its current louche owner, a highly questionable Egyptian speculator -- claimed Cecilia was visitng Jordan with Monsieur Attias and had asked for a separation. And, late Saturday afternoon, the daily e-mail news bulletin of the largest-circulation newsweekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, (entitled Le Journal Permanent), asserted (based on uncited "concordant sources") that Monsieur and Madame Sarkozy had been seen dining on Friday evening in a Madrid restaurant with King Juan Carlos of Spain -- Cecilia Sarkozy is the great-granddaughter of the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909), and considers Spain her "second country." What made this report especially interesting was that it was the first mention by the Nouvel Obs of the Sarkozy couple's difficulties -- so it offered its readers a headline about a rather banal dinner without having previously explained why this was newsworthy, and contented itself in the rest of this article by quoting only Sarkozy's televised comments on France3. Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll's Alice used to say....Update: see also my profiles of Dominique de Villepin -- Villepin the Wiretapper: France's new Prime Minister  -- and of new French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, France's New Foreign Minister is a Laughable Taxi-Dancer.

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