Sarkozy ran as the candidate of change. He expected to encounter resistance when he tried to wean the French from their overprotective employment law, their stridently anti-American foreign policy, their lavish welfare state, their politically correct pieties on immigration, and their retrograde attitude to global capitalism. He spoke plainly where his predecessors equivocated. He advocated better pay for a longer work week, and in November he defeated the civil service transport unions in a make-or-break negotiation over pensions. He sent additional French troops to Afghanistan. He shook hands twice with George W. Bush, for Pierre's sake!Read the whole thing.
All this, his poll numbers withstood--until Sarkozy fell in love. And that, he is discovering, is more politically perilous than almost anything else he has done. It turns out that an open romance--as opposed to quiet cheating on your long-suffering wife (or possibly not so long-suffering; the French are no Neanderthals when it comes to women's rights, they'll be glad to tell you); in particular, a romance exposing M. le président as the kind of klutz who lays his heart (in Dior diamonds and pink spinels) at the feet of a famous beauty within two months of a very public divorce--is unpardonable.
Hiding affairs, lying about infidelities, is par for the course in French political life: It's expected. Of course Bill Clinton lied about his sex life, the French will tell you. (There is no French equivalent for the so useful "Duh!") The press and the inside-the-périphérique crowd knew all about Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's photographer girlfriend and Ferrari crashes with milk trucks in the wee hours, about Mitterrand's second household and "hidden" daughter, about Chirac's flings with a French-Italian film star and a Japanese gallery owner. Nobody was so uncouth as to actually print anything, officially because France's stringent privacy laws prevented it, in reality because it would have been such a pedestrian thing to do. . .
This is perhaps the real reason why the French, whose society is structurally averse to risk, object to the Sarkozy-Bruni whirlwind romance: Sarko has been taking very public risks from the start of his presidency, and Bruni was the riskiest choice of all.
For one thing, Bruni was on the other side politically. During the presidential campaign she criticized Sarkozy's policies and sang at a rally for his Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal. Sarko finally met Bruni last fall when she came to the Elysée as part of a delegation of artists supporting a White Paper on fighting Internet piracy. Apparently impressed, Sarkozy asked a mutual friend, the grand old spin doctor from the Mitterrand years Jacques Séguéla, to include Bruni in a dinner party at Séguéla's home being thrown to lift the lonely president's spirits. "I'm rattling about the Elysée all alone at night," Séguéla said Sarkozy told him. "I'll invite some left-wing pals, you can have a discussion," Séguéla replied.
At first, Bruni declined. When she finally agreed to come, she flatly refused to bring her guitar, though Séguéla pleaded, knowing Sarkozy's taste for after-dinner singing with friends.
One guest at the dinner recalls that Sarkozy was seated between Mme Séguéla, on the president's right as is proper, and Bruni. "Sarko greeted Mme Séguéla and said: 'I must apologize to you, there's something I need to talk about with Miss Bruni.' He then turned his back on his hostess and never stopped talking with Carla--he looked at no one else. They had this four-hour intense, private conversation, which everyone was staring at. You could see she started laughing after a while, but he could as well have been blown off by her in front of everyone else. Nobody dared leave, and afterwards they complained that it was like royal protocol, you had to remain until they'd risen from the table; but in truth they were mesmerized. He was in the cage with the tigress. And he charmed her." . .
[T]his in-your-face, very public carrying on? It simply isn't done. Every pundit and commentator is criticizing "la people-isation de la vie politique," meaning the invasion of the political sphere by the celebrity culture (celebrities are known as "les people" in France, a term traceable, via a gossip column called "People" in the weekly L'Express, to its original in the Time magazine of the 1960s). For years, the French protested that they were not interested in public personalities' private lives. But as the proliferation of celebrity magazines and television programs in the past decade (the one bright spot in an otherwise declining publishing sector) should have made clear, they always were.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
The previous Weekly Standard included the best, and most informative, gossip column I've ever read: Ewwww la la, about the romance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian top model and singer Carla Bruni: