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May 31, 2005

Special to Direland: LETTER FROM ROME...Pope Meets with 1st Gay Italian Governor, and Meddles in Politics

Pope_cartoon_ii The Independent yesterday reported that the new Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, met with the recently-elected, openly gay governor of the region of Puglia. And an old DIRELAND friend, in a Letter from Rome, adds her perspective on some things The Independent missed.

The man some of us refer to as The Rat was, the British daily reminds us, "known as Pope John Paul II's 'enforcer of the faith', and took the opportunity of the trip to the province of Puglia to underline the commitment to bringing all followers of Christ together which has been a dominant theme of his papacy since his election last month. His message was given added significance by the fact that the recently elected governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola (photo right)Nichi_vendola , describes himself as gay, Catholic and communist and cohabits with his gay partner.

"The Pope was welcomed to the city by Mr Vendola, Bari's most controversial new contribution to the Italian political landscape. As well as his outspoken views on homosexuality and communism, the new leader of Puglia is the first such eminence to sport an earring. Governor Vendola said that the pontiff's visit to the capital of his province was 'a cause of joy for me and for all the people of Puglia. We will welcome Benedict XVI with all the solemnity and joy that this important event merits'.

"But on the eve of the Pope's visit, Mr Vendola had made clear his differences with the Pope's hard-line views on homosexuality. In a newspaper interview, he said: 'Recognition of civil unions does not represent any threat to the institution of marriage and the family. There is a reality of loving co-operation which asks to be granted the dimension of a citizen's right.'

"As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope declared homosexuality to be 'a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil', and worked hard to suppress Catholic gay organisations. This included prohibiting priests and nuns from doing pastoral work with gay men and lesbians."

My old friend Judy Harris -- an American ex-pat and sometime journalist who for decades has lived in Italy (where she married a prominent Senator from the Radical Party), e-mailed me a comment on the Ratzinger trip, viewed with her experienced eye, which I found so fascinating I reproduce it here with her kind permission (Judy will be commenting on things Italian in future for DIRELAND as the news warrants):

LETTER FROM ROME: Papal road show in the fast lane,            by Judy Harris

One day after his trip to Bari, the crime-ridden city on Southern Italy's Adriatic Coast, Pope Benedict XVI went on the record to urge voters in a forthcoming Italian referendum to show their opposition to the measures that would ease restrictions on assisted procreation. In office just six weeks, the pope urged Italians not to abstain, but simply not to vote (you work that out).

Some had wondered why he spent a mere three hours in Bari. The answer came from local Church officials who, shortly before the pope's arrival, spoke specifically about the Italian referendum. And in fact, upon his return to Rome, Pope Ratzinger added that Church opposition to the referendum does not reflect "the interests of the Catholic Church, but of those of the children to be born."

Nevertheless, some in the Church here expressed fears that the pope's words may trigger an anti-clerical backlashLanterneanticlerical  and bring about a larger, rather than smaller, turnout. In an interview in the Rome daily La Repubblica Monday a leading Italian Catholic monsignor sounded unhappy: "And we had worked so long to get the Church out of Italian politics."

This is hardly the first time. In the 1950's the Vatican protested the bare legs of female dancers visible on RAI (Italian state TV) Saturday evening pop broadcasts. Past Vatican protests have also regarded films presumed unsuitable for screening at the Venice Film Festival. From the pulpit many priests, particularly in the Italian South, campaigned openly for the now defunct Christian Democratic party.

The new pontiff's agenda is being carefully studied here, and, while he seems to have chosen his words with care, his openly asking voters not to take part in a referendum chooses to ignore the fact that the institution of the referendum in Italy in the early Seventies was hailed as a democratic advance. The pontiff's urging Italians not to participate, which could in theory create a lack of a quorum, ignores that step toward democracy, in a nation whose democratic Constitution dates only from 1947.

The results of the vote, which takes place Sunday, June 12, are not easy to predict. In 1974 divorce became legal in Italy after a  referendum; a few years later abortion too was legalized after a referendum, and made available in public facilities, at public expens (I covered this story for, among others, the New York Times). In both cases predictions of a "no" vote were skewed because those interviewed beforehand intentionally misled pollsters. Particularly the women's vote remains an incognito today, no less than three decades ago.

Among those engaged in the political battle here is Rocco Buttiglione, who was rejected from heading a European Commission, not only for his 19th-century comments on gays and women, but for his insisting that Christian values had to be added to the new European Constitution (or what remains of it after Sunday). Buttiglione is now crowing over the French debacle, which he sees as a citizens' trouncing of the sort of godless secularism that had brought down Buttiglione himself. "The left is against Europe," he said. An interviewer asked, "What of the Le Pen vote against the constitution?" That did not count for much, he said.

The predictably heated reaction from most of the Italian left had some on the right crowing. Maurizio Lupi of Premier Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, called the critics of the pope's forthright comments "the new Hitlers  (who) have come out into the open."

ALSO ON THE THEOCRACY FRONT: Don't miss Jeff Sharlet's eye-opener for Harper's magazine, "Inside America's Most Powerful MegaChurch" , just posted online. Jeff, the editor of The Revealer -- the excellent daily e-newsletter on religion and the media -- dissects Colorado's New Life Church with style. "No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted Haggard (photo right)Ted_haggard_1 , and no church more than New Life...Haggard talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday...The press tends to regard James Dobson as the most powerful evangelical Christian in America, but Pastor Ted is at least his equal." You can read fthe rest of Jeff Sharlet's important article by clicking here.

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If you missed me this morning blabbering on Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" about the French rejection of the proposed European Constitution, the show has now been archived, and you can listen to it on the 'net by clicking on the "Democracy Now!" website.

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Unevillepin3105   Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin -- that's the name of France's new prime minister. An aristocrat who spent most of his life in the diplomatic service (specialties: former head of the Quai d'Orsay's Africa bureau, three years in the French embassy in India, five years as first secretary and then press spokesman for France's embassy in Washington), de Villepin is a protege of disgraced former p.m. Alain Juppe when Juppe was foreign minister. (Juppe, Chirac's closest political collaborator and the former head of his party, earlier this year lost his seat in parliament and his mayoralty in Bordeaux when a court removed his right to hold public office for his involvement in campaign finance scandals). Villepin was secretary-general of the Elysee under Chirac -- meaning he was Chirac's chief of staff. He's best known on this side of the Atlantic as France's foreign minister during the Iraq war, and as the public voice of his country against that war in the U.N. But that doesn't mean Villepin is an anti-imperialist. The Iraq invasion was highly unpopular in France among both left and right political classes and electorates -- some 80% in opinion polls opposed it -- and Chirac, ever the opportunist, knew that taking a strong position against Bush's war would be highly popular in France. But under governments of both left and right, France has always exercised its influence and prerogatives in a muscular way in its former African colonies -- and Villepin helped do that when he was Mr. Africa at the Quai d'Orsay. As Foreign Minister he was a very traditional defender of France's interests and aggressive role in Africa, where it has frequently deployed military forces in its ex-colonies. No anti-imperialist he.

I'd say that Chirac's choice of Villepin means the 70-year-old, conservative French president learned nothing from Sunday's referendum rejecting the European Constitution. That rejection was not a nationalist one, but an economic one -- a rejection of the Europe being constructed as the playground of the multinational corporations, and a reflection of the profound French economic crisis that has unemployment there at 10%. Not only does Villepin have little background in domestic policy, he's never been elected to anything and has little sense of the problems that preoccupy the French in their daily life. He is, therefore, hardly the man one would have imagined as the right response to the socio-economic cry of distress of last Sunday's political revolt against the Euro Constitution.

Moreover, he has a tin ear for electoral politics. It is Villepin who was the architect of Chirac's decision in 1997 to dissolve parliament and call early parliamentary elections -- which the right disastrously lost, and which led to the replacement of the conservative government by Socialist p.m. Lionel Jospin for the next five years. As the "father" of the disastrous dissolution, Villepin is detested by the overwhelming majority of Chirac's UMP party in parliament (yesterday, before Chirac named Villepin as p.m. this morning, Le Figaro quoted a UMP parliamentary leader as saying "there's not a single deputy in the majority who supports the choice of Villepin.")

One of the most interesting facts about Villepin -- revealed by the newsweekly L'Express in April -- is that the new p.m. loves wiretaps and secret police files on everyone, from journalists to politicians, a taste he refined in Chirac's service as secretary-general of the Elysee. The magazine reported that staff at the Quai d'Orsay when Villepin was foreign minister believed their phones were tapped on his orders. And, when he took up his current job as Minister of the Interior and France's "First Cop" (a job Chirac put him in to give him a little domestic experience before he made him p.m., as he'd long planned to do), Villepin told the staff, "I want to know everything the journalists are saying." L'Express described him as spending hours pouring over the daily confidential reports from the Renseignements Generaux, the RG -- France's political police, who have under surveillance and frequently wiretap all sorts of political, journalistic, and well-known personalities, keeping tabs on their targets' private lives as well as the political life of the country. This J. Edgar Hoover-ish tendency to want to know everyone's secrets (and use them politically) is another reason Villepin is detested by the politicians of his own party.

Both on the right and on the left, in the wake of Sunday's vote there have been calls from French political leaders for a complete change in government economic and social policy: even the presidentially hyper-ambitious Nicolas Sarkozy, the chairman of Chirac's party, called for a "rupture"  with those Chirac policies within an hour after the No victory became known. But Villepin has no innovative policy change to offer, he's a loyal Chirac lieutenant. The French right no longer has much legitimacy with the electorate on economic issues, and Villepin is not the man to provide it.

Yes, Villepin's a strange choice indeed as Chirac's response to Sunday's political revolt in France.

P.S. Nicolas Sarkozy (see photo below)Sarkozy_5  is to be named Number Two in the Villepin government, where he will replace Villepin as Interior Minister, France Info radio reported this morning -- that's the job that Sarkozy (now the elected chairman of Chirac's UMP party, in which he is wildly popular) held previously, and where he cemented his reputation, and popularity, as a hard-line law-and-order crackdown artist. Villepin and Sarkozy detest each other, and have been at daggers drawn behind the scenes as both men vied to become the next p.m. in preparation for the 2007 presidential elections, in which each would like to be the candidate of the right. For example, Sarkozy blamed Villepin for leaking wiretaps and confidential information in a political scandal earlier this year in attempt, Sarkozy felt, to blacken his name. Villepin denied it, of course, but political insiders in Paris believe that's exactly what Villepin -- who has a reputation for brutality with subordinates and merciless vengefulness against his enemies -- did. Sarkozy, a masterful and media savvy politician, will try to outshine Villepin at every turn. Thus Sarkozy and Villepin will make a strange governmental team indeed.

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May 30, 2005


Yours truly will be chatting about Sunday's French political revolt against the new Euro Constitution with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez tomorrow morning on their radio show "Democracy Now!" If you're not in reach of one of the 200 radio or TV outlets carrying the show, you can hear it online by clicking on the Pacifica network station KPFA's website. I'm scheduled to be on some time between 6:00 and 7:00 AM PST, which is 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM EST, probably in the first half of the show.

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May 29, 2005

A POLITICAL REVOLT IN FRANCE --What Rejection of the European Constitution Means (Updated)

The massive defeat of the new European Constitution by the French in today's referendum means a virtual political revolution in France -- a rebellion by the people against the political elites of both left and right. The No vote won by a wide margin of nearly ten points -- the latest figures show 54.87% for the No, 45.13% for the Yes. Referendum_non_1 Despite an overwhelming campaign for a Yes vote by the mainstream French media (including a major pro-Yes bias in TV coverage), and tireless stumping for a Yes vote by nearly all the major political leaders of left, right, and center --  a scare campaign that tried to (falsely) tell the overwhelmingly pro-European French that they would be responsible for destroying construction of a united Europe if they voted against this anti-democratic Constitution -- the French electorate's working and middle classes, by their No vote, rejected the unregulated free-market policies, aimed at destroying the welfare state and the social safety net, embodied in the Constitution. (see my earlier analysis, "The New European Constitution: Should Americans Care?")

Today's vote confirms the enormous gap between what the French call "La France d'en haut et la France d'en bas" -- the France of above and the France of below. And this rejection of France's political and media elites will bring extraordinary changes to the country's political landscape:

1. President Jacques Chirac, who called for this referendum (rather than letting parliament alone ratify it and bypass the voters, as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did), has taken a slap in the face from which he cannot recover before the presidential elections of 2007. Right after his two, carefully staged, prime-time TV appearances to campaign for a Yes vote, the No went up several points in the polls each time. Not only is he incredibly enfeebled on the European and world stages, it will now be quasi-impossible for Chirac Jacquechirac_2to seek a third presidential term -- and he won't run again, as my friend Claude Angeli (editor of the investigative-satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine, dean of French investigative journalists, and author of numerous authoritative insider books on Chirac) just told me from Paris on the phone as the results of the referendum became known.

(Angeli also has the view -- as I do -- that, had it not been for the extraordinary beating of the drums for the Yes by the mainstream media, the No vote would have been even larger. For example, when the largest newsweekly, the mildly-left Nouvel Observateur, ran a cover photo of a finger-ponting, respected former European Delors Commission president Jacques Delors (photo right), with the demagogic headline against the No, "THEY'RE LYING TO YOU!'' the mag's editor, Laurent Joffrin (photo below), Laurent_joffrin rewrote and deformed Delors' words to strenghen their anti-No content -- much to the dismay of some of the magazine's editorial staff, which was quite divided on the referendum. As a result, Delors felt obliged to make a much-publicized declaration that -- contrary to what the Nouvel Obs' article made him say -- there was a "Plan B," a way forward toward a more united Europe even if the Constitution was defeated. This Delors turnabout was a major media victory for the No forces, and it helped persuade a lot of moderate and left voters that they were, indeed, being lied to -- but by the Yes camp and the media.)

2. Today's vote means that the presidential candidate of the right in two years will be, not Chirac, but Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious chairman of the conservative UMP party. In a televised declaration broadcast just after the exit poll results were announced that had the accents of a presidential campaign speech, Sarkozy said that there must now be a "rupture" with the French economic and social model -- by which he means a break with the mixed economy, and more ultra-conservative, deregulatory economic and social policies than Chirac has been willing to adopt. Just a few days before the vote, Sarkozy was called "an American" by the head of the center-right UDF party in Chirac's conservative coalition, Francois Bayrou, for Sarkozy's support of Bush's war in Iraq and hard-right economic policies that also resemble Bush's. Guignolssarkozy But Sarkozy (seen at right as his puppet character on the satirical TV show "Les Guignols"), who has led every public opinion poll as the presidential choice of the French for the last two years, is being weakened by the marital scandal which is engulfing him (see my earlier article, "Is France's 'Future President' In Trouble? Nicolas Sarkozy Faces a Crisis.")

3. Chirac will immediately change his prime minister, fire the highly unpopular incumbent Jean-Pierre Raffarin (whose popularity in the polls is only in the low 20s) -- and, my friend Angeli just told me, his sources at the Elysee Palace say the new prime minister will undoubtedly be ex-Foreign Minister Dominique de VillepinDe_villepin_ii   (the voice of France at the UN against the Iraq war--photo at right), who is currently Interior Minister -- despite a lot of pressue from the ranks of Chirac's parliamentary party to name Sarkozy. (Tomorrow's Le Monde is also now reporting that De Villepin "appears to be" the next p.m.) De Villepin, an aristocrat who is Chirac's former chief of staff, is seen by Chirac as the best  hope of defeating Sarkozy as the right's candidate in the coming presidential elections. But de Villepin has never been elected to anything and has never faced the voters -- and his less than lustrous performance as Interior Minister, where Chirac placed him to give him a public profile on domestic policy as a law-and order champion (in the ministry where previously Sarkozy had cemented his reputation with repressive law-and-order, anti-immigrant policies) has not exactly done de Villepin much good with the electorate (especially by comparison with his predecessor, Sarkozy).

4. The political revolution flowing from today's vote encompasses the French left. The Socialist Party's top leaders -- including its chief, Francois Hollande (see photo at left)Images , and former Mitterand Culture Minister Jacques Lang Jacques_lang_1 (the most popular left pol in the opinion polls, thanks to his incessant TV appearances (see photo at right) -- campaigned for a Yes vote. But the Socialist electorate, the exit polls showed, voted hugely for the No by 56-44%. Even though the uncharismatic Hollande has control of the Socialist Party apparatus (at least for the moment), it will now be very difficult for him to be his party's standard-bearer in '07, and Le Canard Enchaine's Angeli told me this afternoon he thinks Hollande's presidential ambitions cannot recover from today's revolt-from-the-bottom of the left electorate.

The Socialist Party's left wing, led by member of parliament Henri Emmanuelli (a former party chief-- see photo at right) Henri_emmanuelli_1 and Senator Jean-Luc Melanchon, leaders of the "Nouveau Monde" tendency within the party -- who campaigned hard for the No against the wishes of their party's executive committee -- finds itself reinforced by today's vote. But neither Emmanuelli nor Melanchon have the "heft" of a serious presidential candidate.

Their ally in the campaign for the No vote -- a former Socialist Prime Minister under Francois Mitterand, Laurent Fabius, number two in the party's hierarchy, who was the target of constant barbs from Hollande and the Socialist leadership during the referendum campaign for breaking party "unity" -- is also reinforced (he had been threatened with expulsion from the party leadership if the Yes had won). But Fabius Fabius (photo, left) is best remembered in France as the prime minister who carried out Mitterand's break with socialist economics to embrace a free-market program of austerity, deregulation, and privatization in 1982  - and it is precisely that sort of economics which, the exit polls show, French voters (and particularly the left electorate) have rejected today. Fabius' campaign for the No was widely perceived as political opportunism designed to enhance his presidential ambitions -- and, while he has the "stature" of a possible president, it's hard to see him eliciting much enthusiasm from "La France d'en bas" and the traditional left electorate. (Fabius was also tried in 1999 for his key role, as prime minister, in the HIV-contaminated blood scandal that killed thousands of French hemophiliacs -- but was acquitted by a politically rigged special court; for an account of his scuzzy role, see my article in POZ on the trial.)

5. Today's vote also is a victory for what is known as "the left of the left" -- Pouvoirmed_1 there was a united and coordinated campaign for the No vote by the Trotskyist LCR (Revolutionary Communist League), and its popular, media-charismatic spokesman Olivier Besancenot, a young postman who was the party's presidential candidate in 2002 (see photo at right)Olivier_besancenot_1 ;  by the French Communist Party, led by its general secretary, Marie-Georges Buffet, a former Minister of Sports and Youth in a coalition government with the Socialists; and by the large "associative left" of extra-party social movements and groups, like the anti-globalization ATTAC, and the leader of the Confederation paysanne, the popular Jose Bove (photo left)Jose_bove , who is appreciated by left militants of all stripes. Even a significant segment of gay and lesbian leadership issued a gay manifesto for the No, arguing the Constitution would be bad for LGBT people. The smaller, hardline, ultra-sectarian Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle), led by its perennial presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller, also urged a No vote--but did not join the coordinated campaign by the "left of the left."

There have been discussions and proposals about uniting the "left of the left" in a single electoral formation ever since the presidential elections of 2002, when the surprisingly large protest vote for the two Trotskyist candidates by defecting Socialist and Communist voters caused the defeat of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's presidential candidacy for a place in the runoff, in which he was displaced by neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now, with the momentum from their successful campaign for the No, the "left of the left" may well finally achieve that organizational unity for the 2007 presidential campaign that has long been talked about -- and with the probable participation of the decimated Communists (now less than 3.5% of the electorate), who used to be part of the "governing left" coalition led by the Socialists, and which included the Greens. The faction-ridden Greens, by the way, were sharply divided over the European Constitution, although the party supported a Yes vote by a narrow majority -- and today's vote will likely provoke a new internal debate that could lead to a rejection of the current Green leadership over the issue of whether or not the Greens should join an electoral coalition of the "left of the left." And it is not entirely out of the question that some elements of the Socialist Party's left wing -- particularly Melanchon's faction -- could split from the Socialists and join that coalition. There will certainly be an emergency Socialist Party Congress called in the wake of today's vote, which disavowed the Pary's adopted Yes position -- the party's left wing includes the moderate-left, process-oriented Nouveau Parti Socialiste tendency Arnaud_montebourg_1led by the hyperambitious deputy Arnaud Montebourg (photo right), which favors a new French Constitution for a VIth Republic, and was also for the No but much less active in campaigning -- and Montebourg will undoubtedly join the Emmanuelli-Melanchon group, which led the campaign for a "Non socialiste," in challenging the current leadership of the party's "elephants," as the old guard in power are known.

Finally, today's vote in France is a good thing for those who oppose the American imperium. Under the Constitution -- which sets in concrete a united Europe's subordination in military and security policy to NATO -- it would take a unanimous vote by every single one of the European Union's 25 countries to adopt a foreign policy position similar to the Franco-German opposition to Bush's war in Iraq. Moreover, any EU country that is a member of the UN Security Council (like France -- or, as in a proposed future enlargement of the Security Council, Germany) would be hobbled in its ability to take an anti-Washington position without consensus approval by all the EU countries as represented in the (un-elected) EU Commission headquartered in Brussels.

So, I couldn't be happier with today's rejection of the European Constitution by the French electorate. If Germany's voters had been given a choice in a referendum, they would probably have voted No as well. However, in the Netherlands -- where polls are also showing the No winning in a referendum to be held there in three days -- the Dutch will probably join the popular movement of refusal of a Europe constructed for the benefit of the multinational corporations. Get out the champagne!

2nd UPDATE, MIDNIGHT MONDAY MAY 30: A new IFOP poll out Monday night confirms: 2/3 of the the salaried voted No, and 3/4 of the workers voted No. The No vote was not a nationalist rejection of Europe, but a demand for a a different Europe -- the No's victory was above all motored by an economic vote, as these numbers suggest (a point that appears to have largely escaped today's British dailies, for example). That was clearly expressed in a Monday night debate on France2 public TV by a number of rank-and-file trade union leaders -- but it was a dialogue with the deaf who had supported the Yes, and who were represented by the actor Philippe Torreton and the ex-minister Bernard Kouchner for the left, and the ultraconservative, gay-baiting, closet case Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres (the only minister willing to appear in the debate) for the right. An unacceptable amount of unintelligible, simultaneous yelling in the 90 minute debate gave me a headache. The daily Liberation is reporting in tomorrow's edition that there is enormous resistance to Chirac's naming de Villepin prime minister from the ranks of Chirac's own party (that's their cartoon below, by the way), while Le Monde reports (not surprisingly) that if Chirac picks de Villepin, Sarkozy would consider that a declaration of war. Non_cartoon And Le Figaro quotes an anonymous leader of Chirac's party as saying "there isn't one deputy of the majority who supports de Villepin" -- only to conclude that by the end of Monday it was clear that he would, indeed, be the next p.m. On Monday night's France2 news, de Villepin was certainly in a smiling good humor after leaving the Elysee following his meeting with Chirac. The name of the new p.m. will be announced during the morning (says Le Figaro) with the traditional reading of a brief communique from the steps of the Elysee Palace by the presidency's secretary-general (chief of staff), and Chirac will go on TV Tuesday night to explain his choice. If you're a real French political news junkie and want to know the name of the new p.m. as soon as it's announced, you can listen to the all-news France Info radio live,on the 'net, on their website (click on "Ecouter le Direct" at the top of the page.)

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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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May 26, 2005


George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant Donkey_crying_2 unfortunately is a best-seller among Democratic progressives seeking a way out of their post-election doldrums (the caption for the illustration at left is "Crying Donkey".) Frankly, Lakoff's New Age-y psycholinguistics are an illusory substitute for real politics that leave me cold, and many of the reasons why can be found in two new articles that offer sound critiques of him. Longtime author-activist Frances Moore Lappé has penned "Time for Progressives to Grow Up: Beyond Lakoff’s strict father vs. nurturant parent, a strong community manifesto," which the Guerilla News Network has posted and Utne Reader Web Watch features as this week's lead choice. She argues that, "rather than reacting to [Lakoff's] 'strict father' frame by searching for a better use of a 'nurturing parent' frame, let’s reframe the entire conversation to one that begins with a definition of citizens as responsible grown-ups, not helpless children.  In this progressive moral vision we strive to live in strong communities—safer and more viable than ones that rely on a strict father, who on deeper examination may turn out to be only a stubborn loner, a bully bringing on the very threats from which he claims to protect us?"

And, you must not miss the terrific send-up of Lakoff by my L.A. Weekly colleague and companero Marc Cooper (see photo)Marc_cooper_2_1 in the May issue of The Atlantic, "Thinking of Jackasses: the grand delusions of the Democratic Party." Marc growls that Lakoff's book is "personal therapy disguised as politics, psychobabble as electoral strategy. Lakoff, revealingly, provides nary a word on reshaping the Democratic Party itself, blunting the influence of corporate cash, eliminating the stranglehold on the party and its candidates by discredited but omni-powerful consultants, reversing its estrangement from the white working class, finding some decent candidates, or just about anything else that might require actual strategic thinking, organizing, and politicking. Never mind. What liberals most need to do, Lakoff says, is 'be the change you want.'

"This is not to disparage as self-indulgent, latte-sipping navel-gazers and whiners the 48 percent of the electorate that voted Democratic. But Limbaugh-driven stereotypes aside, the Democratic liberal and activist crust does indeed seem ever more in denial about the depth of its defeat, about its detachment from what it claims as its 'traditional base,' and about its apparent willingness to pursue little more than a self-referential, self-indulgent political aesthetic. It's much easier nowadays to fancy yourself a member of a persecuted minority, bravely shielding the flickering flame of enlightenment from the increasing Christo-Republican darkness, than it is to figure out how you're actually going to win an election or, God forbid, organize a union...." You've absolutely got to read the rest of Marc Cooper's biting analysis by clicking here.

Finally, Reason magazine's Jesse Walker has a libertarian take on Lakoff, "The Man Who Framed Himself," that is well-argued (even when I disagree with some of its politics) and makes some astute observations. Where Lakoff proposes the Democrats adopt these slogans: "Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility," Jesse smirks: "Maybe I'm just missing the frame, but that sure sounds like mush to me." Bien vu, as the froggies say...

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Eiffel_tower_1 Yours truly can be heard this coming Sunday on KFPA, the San Francisco-Bay Area Pacifica radio station, where I'll be analyzing Sunday's referendum in France on the proposed new European Constitution. The interview is scheduled for 6:00 PM PST (9:00 PM EST) -- by which time defintive election returns from the referendum should be available -- and can also be heard on the 'net by clicking on the KPFA website. I'm happy to report that the "No" vote has been progressing steadily in 7 successive opinion polls over the past ten days, as the undecided third of the electorate appears to be breaking against the European Constitution. The latest poll yesterday by IFOP, one of the more reliable French polling institutes, shows the "No" leading by eight points. (For background, see my earlier lengthy post, "The New European Constitution: Should Americans Care?") One thing appears certain: after the vote, France will have a new prime minister. The unpopular incumbent, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is at his lowest point ever in the polls -- only 21% approval in the latest -- and Chirac Jacques Chirac has been under much pressure from his own conservative coalition to dump him. Today's conservative daily Le Figaro reports Chirac's choice for the new p.m. probably will be either Interior Minister (and ex-Foreign Minister) Dominique de Villepin, or Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie (a former chair of Chirac's party).

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Bush buddy and billionaire Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi -- whose unpopularity in his country is growing -- is trying, by proxy, to take over Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, long considered one of Europe's most influential newspapers, reports today's Paris daily Liberation. Berlusconi_ii The respected, if somewhat conservative Milan-based national daily did not appear last Sunday because of a one-day strike by its 352 journalists, aimed at protesting an apparent takeover bid by a close associate of Berlusconi's, real-estate magnate Stefano Ricucci.

A journalists' representative on the paper's editorial board told Liberation that "Ricucci was born nothing and made himself rich in a world made by speculation. We've noticed that the shares in the holding company that owns Corriere della Sera are being bought on the stock exchange for more than they're worth," leading to suspicions that Ricucci is trying to increase his 14% stake in RCS (Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, the company which owns the daily) and ultimately take full control of the paper on behalf of Berlusconi. The journalists rep went on to add that the crisis at Corriere della Sera underscores "the abnormality of the press situation in Italy. The equilibrium of the print press was already precarious, but Berlusconi has aggravated the situation. More and more, investors are using the press as a tool of influence and power." Corriere_della_sera Despite a statement in the wake of the strike from an alliance of large holding companies that control 57% of the paper's stock, pledging to defend Corriere della Sera against "any financial or political speculation," the journalists' association is calling for "reinforced autonomy" for the paper against what it considers a covert buyout attempt by Berlusconi's buddy.

Berlusconi, of course, already controls 90% of Italian TV (both through his privately-owned networks and the state-owned networks he has brought to heel) and a huge portion of the print press through the Mondadori holding company, which Berlusconi also controls. Should Italy's embatled premier manage to get control of the prestigious Corriere della Sera, even by proxy, it would give him even further hegemony over Italy's media on the eve of coming parliamentary elections, and remove an independent thorn in his side that has not been chary about criticizing him. We say a big Bravo! to the paper's courageous journalists, who've put their jobs on the line to defend editorial independence.

UPDATE, MAY 26: POLICE RAID CORRIERE DELLA SERA        The Paris-based  interntional organization for the defense of journalists, Reporters Without Borders, today issued a denunciation of a May 25 police raid on Corriere della Serra, in which the premises were searched and one of the paper's journalists was interrogated. The reporter had written a story about an official investigation into how Baretta guns found their way into the hands of Iraqi insurgents-- U.S. forces said they had found Barettas in the possession of Al Qaeda members. The police "searched through computers, offices and papers belonging to journalists working in general news, looking for the sources that gave the journalist the information used in the article and to identify possible 'leaks' in the investigation carried out by Brescia prosecutors in the Beretta case," said Reporters Without Borders' stinging statement, adding that the raid violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing protection of journalistic sources. You can read the detailed RWB statement in its entirety by clicking here. The obvious question: is this another Berlusconi attempt to intimidate the paper?

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May 25, 2005


The new issue out today of The Revealer -- the excellent daily e-newsletter from the Center for Religion and the Media at New York University -- has a sharp-eyed (and sharp-tongued) piece by its editor, Jeff Sharlet, on the New York Times Magazine's profile of Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican and religious primitive. Says Sharlet: "The New York Times wants to be fair to Christian conservatives. So fair, in fact, that it leaves unchallenged the fictions with which some politically-motivated Christian conservatives re-write history...In its pursuit of balance, it has tipped the scales in favor of fundamentalists who conform history to the demands not of their faith, but of their politics." Don't miss Sharlet's eye-opening dissection of the Times' coverage.

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