Friday, 20 April 2012

Avant Moi, Le Déluge

On 12th April 2000, 12 years ago, I moved to Paris. In advance, I came to celebrate the Millenium, arriving a day after Cyclone Lothar had devastated parks, gardens and forests within and around the city. Parisians told me how they had seen whole chimneys flying across the sky and how they had huddled in their apartments while the hurricane roared through the streets reaching speeds of 150kph to 260kph at the Eiffel Tower. “Avant Moi, Le Déluge” I thought, paraphrasing De Gaulle’s “Après Moi, Le Déluge.” delivered in Montreal in 1967. The quote originated with Louis XV or his official mistress the Marquise de Pompadour and may have referred to the coming French Revolution. Pompadour might have meant the rush of women that would compete for her place in Louis’ bed after her death. De Gaulle meant that political chaos would overtake France when he left office, which he did on April 28th 1969. He had already created the Fifth Republic in October 1958, but the chaos he predicted may yet happen following the Presidential elections on April 22nd and May 6th 2012.
The first poll establishes the two main contenders who qualify for the 2nd round. The carve up of votes cast for the remaining candidates happens at the vote two weeks later. At the time of writing it seems likely that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will be the two contenders in the second poll on May 6th, a relatively simple polarization between left and right. But the real polarization will be demonstrated in Round 1: opinion polls show double figure support for Marine Le Pen and her Front National on the extreme right, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche on the extreme left. As the latter is now running 3rd in the polls he may damage Hollande’s chances in Round 1 and oblige him to negotiate before Round 2. Le Pen, running 4th can eat into Sarkozy’s vote but is unlikely to be offered a government post in a Sarkozy administration.
The centre candidate Bayrou is now running fifth. His speeches and interview texts show intelligent solutions on French economics but make no secret of the grim reality ahead: his candour may even be frightening voters away. A socialist win can only reverse gains made for business under Sarkozy. Mélenchon would lower the retirement age to 60 and reinstate the 35 hour week, taxing salaries of over 360,000€ a year for top executives at 100%. No wonder Hollande looks frightened as he desperately tours poorer suburbs trying to convince abstainers to vote for him: he doesn’t believe he can win alone. That means a deal with the extreme Mélenchon and, Le Déluge.
Sarkozy has the smug air of one preaching to the converted. But he will also certainly be obliged to negotiate after Round 1.
With whom? The Ecologists are weak; but minor parties and ex-Front National voters can add to his margin. Bayrou is his best bet and France’s only hope for the avoidance of Le Déluge some months after a Hollande/Melechon win when their short sighted policies provoke economic catastrophe. Sarkozy could offer him a major political post (e.g.Prime Minister) in return for his support in Round 2.
The reason Bayrou is the answer to the longer-term problem is that his appeal is to the centre, to the young and upwardly mobile, the new—for France—yuppie class. He is the solution because France has been deeply divided historically since before the Revolution. 
During that Millenium weekend I borrowed the 8th floor studio of a political science student. His books drew me away from the storm tossed views of Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. One I could not resist was “La Societé Bloquée.” Written in the Fifties it describes with penetrating candour the impossibility of switching classes in France. Not only class but clique barriers have been insurmountable. One has only to count the number of graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, who run top state companies to realize that the old boy network in France is as good as any that Eton ever produced. Cliques thrive because one cannot get anywhere without the right introduction. People hang out all their lives with their classmates from the lycée and fail to be admitted to other similar groups. One friend (already successful) recently said that he had been told it would be hard for him to progress in Paris since he was not himself from Paris. Another friend (now a multi-millionaire) told me he had to seek his future outside France because he did not have the right family connections. The same applies if one has ambitions be a Metro driver. Contacts are everything but networking is mainly within the clique.
To describe this further would be to write another La Societé Bloquée.  So I’ll stop here and wait for the election results. Power to the centre would be the first ray of hope that France can climb out of its highly institutionalized class war and build a country where success and prosperity are based on talent, merit, ambition and hard work, one looking to a class mobile future rather than a gridlocked past.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The King Is Dead. Long Live the President!

Soon after my move to Paris in April 2000, I was hunting for an apartment.  My agent sent me to see a place on the fifth floor of a building exactly across the street from the Élysée Palace, official residence the President of France. The view south from the apartment terrace took in the whole spread of the Élysée and its gardens. It was so close across the narrow space of rue Faubourg du St Honore that I would have been able to toss an apple or for that matter an explosive, into its forecourt. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had taken the flat. One problem would have been the constant circus of vehicles and police coming and going through the ornate gates and I doubt if I would have felt comfortable eating my petit dejeuner on the terrace, let alone in a bikini, my habit in Montagu Square, weather permitting. Indeed there are rules of etiquette if not laws about that sort of thing in Paris.

In those days the occupant was Jaques Chirac, as decorous a ceremonial President as one could wish for, fulfilling the role of Head of State with some of its lingering monarchic functions, and living at the Élysée with his respectable wife. Small by palatial standards (one only has to look at the Louvre just up the street) the Élysée was not originally a home of kings. It was built as the Hotel d’Evreux for the Compte d’Evreux. Later, Louis XV bought it as a residence for his beloved mistress the Marquise de Pompadour. After Pompadour’s death the house reverted to the crown but changed hands several times and was eventually named the Élysée. Some dodgy years followed: it was confiscated during the Revolution, and some rooms used for gambling. Later Napoleon bought it and from then on it became more and more often the home of the French ruler of the day. 

One of the more amusing stories about it is that, in 1917, an orangutan escaped from a nearby menagerie and tried to haul the wife of the then President, Poincaré into a tree. The next President, Paul Deschanel is said to have taken to climbing the Élysée’s trees during State receptions until he retired due to mental illness. Despite these minor aberrations, the Élysée has been the official residence of the President of the Republic since 1873 and today, the Élysée and the Presidency are jointly a focus of the power and prestige of the Head of State who symbolizes La France, the Nation. It is because of this symbolic significance and the dignity attached to it, that Nicolas Sarkozy is deeply out of favour with many of his countrymen. One reason he may lose the 2012 Presidential Elections is the perceived absence of dignity and respect for the office shown by Sarkozy himself during the previous five years.

Elements of a circus and echoes of the cries of rough Cossacks, who took the house over during their occupation of Paris in 1814, have been evident to the dismay of many who voted Sarkozy into office in 2007. From the earliest days of his Presidency, he has shown a lack of respect for his position as Head of State and for those he meets in the course of his duties. His comment to a journalist at a recent Toulouse press conference, "Qu'est-ce que ce que vous voulez que j'ai à foutre de ce que vous me dites ? Espèce de couillon, va" (‘What the f*** do you want me to have done about what you are telling me? Go, you castrated specimen’ is a rough translation. "Couillon" is a way to say "no balls" but in Southern France, I am told, this is the familiar way you would address anyone of your relatives so it is not necessarily a personal insult. But it’s a vulgarity that does not sit well with Presidential dignity and its streetwise references to the male genitals is typical of the words and style that have put Sarko out of favour with his own supporters. His personal life is another cause.
In 2007, immediately after Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrival at the Élysée, his first embarrassment was his (long expected) divorce from his second wife Cecilia, (who had left him but returned for the elections) and his next was to marry into show business. The mainly pro-Sarko press on the Cecilia divorce was carefully stage-managed but when Nicolas espoused the notorious Carla Bruni, the press went wild with stories about her scandalous past. She then proceeded to turn the Élysée into the set for photo shoots to  revive her former career as a catwalk model. I am told that the marriage was a deal, enabling Sarkozy to have a legitimate bride on his arm at State functions and visits such as those to Windsor Castle, while she would take advantage of her position to promote herself. Blatantly using the Presidency for her self promotion, she cavorted before the media with the help of PR, facial reconstruction and her family money. Thus, the whole style of the Sarkozy Presidency was tinged at the outset with a brashness and vulgarity that offended the conservative political class from which he derives his support.
Disapproval ran deep among Sarkozy’s colleagues. The rift that occurred between Sarkozy and his Prime Minister François Fillon, early in the presidency was due to Mr and Mrs Fillon’s aversion to sharing a dinner table with Sarkozy’s third wife, who says she knows and cares nothing about politics and whose goals and values seem to be far from those of  her husband’s political world.
A political associate of Sarkozy’s told me that the reason for the marriage, was that “Nicolas can’t bear to be alone.”  But Sarko’s obvious love of money and nouveau riche symbols, from gold Rolexes to Gucci Glasses (the Bling Bling) go with his choice of consort and they are seen as distasteful in one who holds office as the elected successor of kings. One observer commented that the role of the Presidency derives from a line stretching back before Francois I, and his Valois and Bourbon successors. Being elected rather than anointed does not diminish the dignity and respect due to the office, rather it may increase it since the elected Head of State also has political  accountability.
Example is the other factor. Sarko’s disrespect for others seems to have spread like a virus. Since Sarkozy’s Presidency began, the general behaviour in France, a country whose elaborate social codes and manners have long been legendary, seems to have deteriorated. Respect towards women has been undermined perhaps thanks to the image of a President’s wife that seems unworthy of respect. But the lack of respect works both ways. Perhaps the fact that one of Sarkozy’s sons recently had to be reprimanded after throwing a missile at one of the Élysée Palace police guards reflects the lack of respect for the Élysée and the symbolic significance of the Presidency that exists behind the scenes in the Sarkozy household.
For these reasons as much as the political ones, the electoral guillotine is more than likely to fall on Sarkozy’s neck.