How the French President Got Firm

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking.

The French president, François Hollande, endorses multi-tasking. On his left, Julie Gayet, his lover; on his right, Valerie Trierweiler, his long-term girlfriend and the First Lady.

Who knew that François Hollande was so hard. Such a dog. Such a Don Juan. Such a baller. Forgive the porno-speak, but those are just a few examples of the kind of language that’s been recurring in the endless commentaries of the Hollande affair in recent days. Even if no one in France is really surprised that the president is having an affair, they actually do seem surprised about—and impressed by—just what this President has got up to.

He’s “a magnificent baller!” declared Frédéric Mitterand, the former Culture Minister under Sarkozy (and the nephew of former president François Mitterand), literally cackling with tawdry glee on Belgian television in a clip that was leaked today.

Mitterand (who’s got his own sexual affairs baggage about which he’s been quite explicit and who’s been known to sometimes go overboard in his public comments) explains exactly why he is so surprised that the President pulled off such an exploit: “He doesn’t really have the looks for this kind of affair…if you were looking for someone to play the role of the total seducer, you wouldn’t pick a guy who looks like François Hollande!”

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a "magnificent baller!"

Frédéric Mitterand, former Culture Minister, says Hollande is a “magnificent baller!”

Mitterand, in his own bawdy terms, has said out loud what everyone has been thinking silently to themselves (and a little less silently: the very well-known political journalist, Michèle Cotta, was caught on microphone calling the President “ugly and pathetic”). Quite simply, Hollande didn’t look or act the part. There seems to be a general sense of genuine surprise that Hollande really could be such a seducer—this kind of seducer in the most traditional and literal sense of the term, with all its masculine and caddish connotations. The kind of guy who would have been involved with a beautiful and much younger actress for, reports are saying today, what may have been nearly two years, while still involved with a First Lady, also younger and attractive, for whom he’d left his previous partner of over 20 years.

No one was surprised that men like Strauss-Kahn, or Chirac or Mitterand, would have had affairs. Those men had an aura, they looked, respectively, charismatic, charming, and regal. But Hollande just didn’t look like a man who would—or could—engage in the kind of behavior that, from the outside, plays perfectly into the cliché of the 19th century gallant or the contemporary bad-boy.

That wasn’t Hollande. Hollande was the man without definition, literally and figuratively, the overweight insipid-looking guy nicknamed Flamby—after a shapeless dessert pudding—who went from a strong dominant mother to his strong dominant partner, Ségolène Royal, and then a strong dominant girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler. Trierweiler’s unflattering and sexist nickname is Rottweiler, because of her reputation for being overbearing. (On the evening of Hollande’s victory, cameras captured her ordering him to kiss her—“on the lips!”—in front of the crowds.)

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Flamby is a jiggly caramel pudding dessert. It was also Hollande’s nickname.

Hollande was the man whose apparent inability to effectively deal with France’s economic problems, to rally political will to make tough changes—whose perceived impotence had translated into the lowest presidential ratings on record in modern France.

But suddenly the President’s edges have hardened. If there’s one thing he’s not, it’s impotent. He’s now the man with the desire and the drive to pursue a reckless love affair. To follow his wants. To take what he needs. Despite his circumstances or the risks. (Or, arguably, decency, when it comes to Valerie Trierweiler, who evidently discovered her relationship with the President was over when he told her, the night before, about the imminent tabloid magazine cover on his affair with another woman).

Everybody is terribly impressed that that guy not only got the girl—but went to get the newer younger sexy girl, while holding onto the previous girl. “A lady-killer!” say innumerable commentators, “It’s a shake-up!” headlines another magazine. He’s no Flamby anymore.

This is, for better or for worse, a model display of the cliché of virility: boundless sexual energy and a sense of power and impunity. “Sexually, François Hollande doesn’t come across as a modern man anymore,” said Eric Fassin, a well-known sociologist, “On the contrary, he’s revived a traditional model in his economic policy as well as his romantic life, from here on in, the President has set a course, and he’s going to hold to it firmly. In brief, he’s become ‘a man’, ‘a hard guy, ‘a real one’, at the expense of his women….”

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

François Hollande. Flamby or firm?

Firm, hard, real. According to friends and colleagues of the President (none of whom actually agree to go on the record) this is actually Hollande’s true nature revealing itself. In a story in the newspaper Le Parisien, someone cited as being “close to” the president says that “his physique makes people underestimate him. It’s a big mistake. Inside, he’s a blade of hard steel.”

Perhaps this blade of hard steel will take an invigorated approach to leading France and that he’ll hold firmly to the new economic course he set last week, pledging policies to make the economy more competitive. But Hollande appears to be dealing with the matter on a personal level, with Valerie Trierweiler, in the same firm, hard manner. He’s set a course and he’s holding to it firmly. Like a political matter, distant and business-like. Ouch. Hollande left Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, in a similar way that evidently he’s been leaving Trierweiler for the past two years: gradually, silently, a little insidiously, without actually telling either woman until public reports would eventually force him to confirm that he was more or less already gone.

Which, even for a “magnificent baller,” is pretty shabby.

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Why everyone in France is only pretending to care that François Hollande might be having an affair

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

So the big news in France today is that the president, François Hollande, might be having an affair. If it sounds like the opening line of a late-night show, that’s because the French public and French media seem to be greeting the news with the same deadpan tone that comics like to use. Because nobody’s really that surprised and, mostly, nobody actually cares that much.

Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a big media frenzy and hubbub of social media activity, and lots of snickering. First of all it’s a break from conversations about the Dieudonné controversy. People are tired of debating the issue of the rightness or wrongness of banning the comedian’s anti-semitic performances, so a presidential affair is the perfect—legitimate—excuse to talk about something else. But there’s no real intensity to the reactions. If people are commenting the claim by the tabloid magazine, Closer, that Hollande is having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet it’s because, well, after all he is the president of France.

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on "The President's Secret Love Story."

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on “The President’s Secret Love Story.”

Many French media seem to be echoing a similar refrain: that the presidential entourage has known for several days that the story was going to come out “but did nothing to prevent it.” Which is a media’s enigmatic—or disingenuous—way of implying that, well, the story is true, without actually appearing to report anything more than the fact that these allegations have been made and that Hollande may choose to pursue the tabloid for invasion of privacy.

The enigmatic and disingenuous media is an issue that the French love to revisit. And they’ve been indulging all day. With unavowed nostalgia they recall that time, back in the 80s, when for years—nearly a decade—the media covered up the story of President Mitterand’s second family. Most observers agree today that they should condemn that time and that culture; not the President’s affair, but the culture that entitled the President and other powerful politicians to some divine right of discretion, and engendered a self-enforced censorship among the media. Since the Strauss-Kahn affair, it’s become more complicated to defend that omertà or any powerful person’s special entitlement to indiscretions.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand's second family--his mistress and their daughter--only emerged years after his death.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand’s second family–his mistress and their daughter–only emerged years after his death.

Nonetheless, there’s also been a unified chorus of responses from Hollande’s ministers and his supporters, and even his political opponents, condemning Closer’s publication of the story. They have all come out stating that the President—or, as many have said it, “even the President”—has a right to privacy. Some socialist politicians were actually refusing to comment, saying that the matter has nothing to do with politics, end of story.

So is that true? Does the President’s affair, if he’s having one, have nothing to do with politics? Is the President just a normal guy who deserves privacy? Interestingly, the editor-in-chief of Closer makes the same argument to defend her magazine’s publication of pictures allegedly proving the affair. President Hollande, she said on the radio this morning, “is a normal president who was swept off his feet. There’s no need for so much drama around (the publication of) these pictures.” That a man—even this man—falls for a woman, she implies, is no big deal.

It’s not exactly an uncalculated defence, since Hollande’s campaign slogan—which was much ridiculed—was that his would be a “normal presidency,” in opposition to the ostentatious presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy who had so immodestly spread the details of his private life before the public, divorcing shortly after his election and then just a few months after that marrying the former model and musician, Carla Bruni.

Whether a “normal” president is one who deserves the right to privacy or one who deserves the right to let himself be seduced now seems to be a question. The answer, of course, is that a “normal” president deserves both. It’s just a uniquely French rhetorical obliqueness (or disingenuousness) to defend the former while actually, really, defending the latter.

And what’s also wonderfully, uniquely French is that politicians are defending the president at all. Could you ever imagine American politicians simply refusing to talk about published allegations that the president is having an affair? Could you ever imagine a senator or congressman, when asked about widely-circulated photographs featuring the President of the United States of America spending the night with a woman who is not his wife in a building that is not the White house—simply saying it’s none of his business? Well, that’s how they roll in France.

To give another example of how these things go down in France—and to continue reinforcing a few more stereotypes about French culture—there is some speculation among political analysts and pollsters about the possibility that this affair will actually be good for Hollande politically. The same magazine, a mainstream tabloid publication, that broke the story on its website last night published a poll today asking readers whether:

  • The affair will make François Hollande more popular!
  • After these revelations the President loses all credibility!

(The results as of 11:50 p.m. this evening are 22% thinking it’ll be good for Hollande, and 78% thinking it’ll hurt him).

One final subsidiary point in the underwhelming affair of  President Hollande’s affair is the fact that he would find time to have one at all. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that the President of the 5th largest economy in the world—that also happens to be on the brink of another recession—is able to find the mindspace, and the slot in his schedule, to take a lover.

The Morning After.

The Morning After.

Part of the story revealed by Closer in the photographs published is of the morning after one of the supposed lovers’ trysts. Pictures show a man who is allegedly the President’s bodyguard entering the building with a little paper bag of…croissants.

In France, it’s not really a Morning After unless there are croissants. Even for the President.

Buying “Made in France”: Say, what’s the terroir of your t-shirt?

Imagine buying clothes and household appliances like you might buy wine or cheese: with close attention to where it was made, how it was produced—who produced it—what the ingredients are, whether it keeps well. What’s the terroir of those pony-skin gloves? How long has that blender been produced in this part of Normandy? What is it about the locals here in the back-country of the Limousin region that they make such exceptional men’s loafers?

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Pony-skin gloves by Fabre.

Now imagine a whole economy built on that idea—terroir consumption or “loca-buying”—and you have an idea of the “Made in France” movement that’s been quietly spreading in France over the past few years.

Just this week yet another book came out about products made in France. It’s called “Objets éstampillés France” (meaning, literally, “Objects Stamped France”), and features beautiful photos of objects as diverse as black lace from Calais (first manufactured in 1816), and notepads from the Rhodia company (founded in Lyon in 1932), with captions of admiration written by French celebrities for these mythical French-made products that have become celebrities themselves.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

The famous Rhodia notepad.

Black Calais lace.

Black Calais lace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The term “movement” is probably over-stating the impact of “Made in France” (pronounced “med een Franz” in French), but it has definitely become a frequently-cited slogan—and clearly a business opportunity—since France’s Minister for Industrial Renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, launched the idea last year as a strategy to jolt France out of its economic crisis. Instead of buying imported goods or French products manufactured in outsourced hubs abroad, he encouraged the French to buy products that are French and made in France, investing money that might have been subsidizing foreign companies and foreign workers back into the French economy. Last October, he posed on the cover of a magazine wearing a striped sailor t-shirt (Armor Lux, Brittany region) and holding a blender (Moulinex, Normandy region) to make his point.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

Arnaud Montebourg, Minister for Industrial renewal, posing on the cover of Le Parisien.

The whole plan felt a little iffy, with a scent of nationalist protectionism edging generously towards populism. Montebourg got a lot of flack for the magazine cover which seemed very out of step with the buttoned-up tone of traditional socialist politics and because, well, the whole anti-foreign, flag-waving thing traditionally belongs to parties on the opposite side of the spectrum.

It turns out it may not be the soundest economics either. This summer, a report by a non-partisan research institute revealed not only that buying “Made in France” would cost consumers up to $400 more a month, but that the extra money spent on French-made products would divert consumer cash from the service industry—which actually generates more employment than the manufacturing industry. In brief, buying exclusively “Made in France” might actually be bad for the French economy.

This guy looks excited about the "Made in France" movement.

This guy looks excited about the “Made in France” movement.

What it’s good for though is the French spirit. More than a plan for the economy, “Made in France” is a rallying cry for French identity. It’s a reminder of what the French are good at, of what makes France…France—in the minds of the French. Craftsmanship, know-how, innate good taste, a tradition of objects with meaning, rooted in a place and a culture. Being really good at something. Heck, being the best at something.

This is the image the French have of themselves and want to project to the world. The idea of what “Made in France” represents—a certain uniqueness and exceptionalism—is the rampart protecting France’s place in the world from the onslaught of an overpowering global economy.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

An Opinel folding knife, made in the Savoie region of France since 1890.

And the fact is that stuff that’s been made in France for generations really is, generally, beautiful and just…better. I’m a fan of terroir chic, of seeking out the best that loca-style has to offer: that grand cru of tobacco pipes made in the village of Saint-Claude (since 1855), that perfectly aged method for making Sophie, the natural-rubber toy giraffe (manufactured since 1961), those beechwood-encased folding knives by Opinel that haven’t changed shape or materials since 1890. It’s true that these kinds of objects are hard to find out there in the world these days.

But guess what? They’re still made in France.

I leave you with a map of French terroir fashion, a guide to style-by-region featured in the fashion magazine Madame Figaro last month. You just might be tempted, on your next trip to France, to get some Fabre gloves (since 1924) along with your case of Côte du Rhone near Nîmes in the south of France, or a vintage studded belt from the leathergoods company Laffargue (since 1890) along with your Iberian ham in the Basque country.

A map of terroir fashion. Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

A map of terroir fashion.
Illustration by Ivan Soldo (in Madame Figaro).

You’ll be doing good to the French spirit—in fact, you’ll be wearing the French spirit home. And you’ll look undeniably the chic-er for it.

Has Someone Said the Unsayable Truth About the Roma?

There has been one single word in French headlines non-stop for the past week and that’s “Roma.” The French have a Roma problem and it is one of those intractable issues with no easy solutions and so loaded with taboos and unsayable truths that it makes everyone squeamish. It’s not a new problem, but it was set off again last week when France’s charismatic and very popular Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, said in a radio interview that most Roma people in France “don’t want” to assimilate, and hence “are best off returning to Romania or Bulgaria.”

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

The comments set off fireworks of reactions, most notably from the Minister of Housing, Cécile Duflot (who is from France’s left-of-the-socialists Green Party). She accused Valls of betraying the “Republican Pact”. Those, in France, are fighting words—quite strong ones, the French equivalent of one senator accusing another of being un-American—and created a political stand-off between the two. Duflot is right, of course, on principle: it’s a terrible thing to stigmatize an entire ethnicity as being unwilling to assimilate, the kind of thing that was said about Jews, sixty years ago. In fact, if you replace “Roma” with any other ethnicity or race—Asian, Kurd, Arab, whatever—nobody would disagree that Vall’s statement was profoundly racist.

But the majority of French people tend—massively—to agree with…Valls. A poll this past weekend revealed that 77% of the French agree that the Roma would be better off going back to their countries of origin, and it’s not just France’s right-wing nationalists coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of a political opportunity: 98% of the French voters on the right agree, but so do 55% of voters on the left. Another poll yesterday simply asked who people thought was right, Valls or Duflot—and fully two-thirds of the French agree with the Minister of the Interior and just 28% with Duflot.

Valls has said out loud what more or less everyone, or a great majority of everyone, is thinking to themselves. He’s said in a—slightly—more appropriate way what the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles said this summer on one of their August covers with the title, “Roma Overdose.”

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The August 22, 2013 cover title of this right-wing news magazine. “Roma Overdose,” reads the title, “Exclusive poll: the French have had enough.”

I probably could have told you that without seeing any poll numbers at all. Here’s why, the unvarnished, politically incorrect reason why: if you live in Paris, or a number of other large French cities, in any neighborhood but the most exclusive, then you too live with the Roma—a lot of Roma. Thanks to European integration, Romania and Bulgaria, the country of origin of most Roma people, are part of Europe. Romanians and Bulgarians are free to circulate throughout the European Union and it is legal for them to live and work within most of the 28 member states. They do not need a visa.

As a result, there are nearly 20,000 Roma in France, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in the greater Paris region, living in some 400 illegal encampments. France does not allow any race or ethnicity based census-taking, but the Roma are involved in two main rackets: organized begging and prostitution. Both the beggars and the prostitutes tend to be women and children. Because they live in squalid, makeshift camps with no running water or electricity, and because they don’t have jobs or income, they also run organized rings of garbage-pickers. In one encampment, with its own makeshift mayor and security force, every family pays a Euro a day into the “municipal” kitty for access to the day’s scavenged food. There are vans that, every morning at dawn, drop off teenagers and women all over the city, in Paris’s dozens of arrondissements: some women settle onto a street corner to beg, others set out to pick over trash cans, and bands of teenagers, often including pregnant girls, rove about tourist areas with pens and pads of paper waiting to hit up some foreigners. Their lives, frankly, sound awful.

A Roma encampment in Paris's 19th arroniddissement.

A Roma encampment in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

I live in a diverse, gentrifying neighbourhood of northern Paris, and my apartment happens to overlook a broad open green space, like a small public lawn. For over a year now, except during the winter’s coldest months, there has generally been a large family, or a big extended family, sometimes a whole gang of a several dozen Roma, camping out: mothers with babies, fathers, pregnant teenagers, multiple strollers, spreads of food, men lounging, even an old accordionist who all summer long, every day, from 6am to 6pm has played the same song. I either want to kill him or teach him to play another song. He’s there now. This summer for a while they’d dragged an old leather couch under a nearby scaffolding and hung out there when it rained. It stayed for weeks.

I wouldn’t want to live on the street. It’s a terrible life. But frankly, I wished they didn’t live in my street. Who does want them to live on their street? What community wants to host their encampment? What city will offer them jobs, education, and healthcare?

Roma are the thorny and taboo topic, the nuisance about which no one dares speak, now a part of everyday urban aggravation, a familiar and unwelcome feature of street-life, the unspoken target of everyone’s animosity, the legal and social problem to which no one on the left has dared offer a solution, and which the far-right has enthusiastically placed high up on their electoral agenda.

In reality, Manuel Valls said in language that was tolerable to the left (“they don’t want to assimilate”…“best off returning to Romania”) exactly what the right said in language that made them sound friendly to the far-right National Front party (“enough, leave, go home”). And now that he’s said it, it’s made him even more popular: he has become his party’s favorite campaign trail accessory in France’s local election campaigns that are now going full swing.

And that’s what’s so troubling—that most of the political spectrum, from the mainstream Socialists to the right to the far-right actually seem to agree. That should never happen. And when it does, it makes for a very ugly confusion of genres.

Because eventually Valls will no longer be able to cloak his phrases in euphemistic suggestions of “better off”, he’ll probably have to speak a little more clearly about exactly what he means—and then what will he sound like?

Gangland on the Riviera: France’s Marseille Problem

Marseille seen from the old port.

Marseille seen from the old port.

The idea of the south of France doesn’t usually evoke images of drug violence or drive-by shootings. If anything crime on the French Riviera might call to mind diamond heists in Cannes (of which there’ve been quite a few this year). But not much further down the sparkling azure coast, built on rolling hills surrounding an old port, there’s Marseille, where just this week, yet another pair of assault-weapon shootings left two youth dead, confirmed the city’s reputation for being—literally—the most dangerous place in Europe to be young, and has definitively added a Marseille Problem to the current government’s concerns.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

What is most striking about the violence in Marseille is the perception of impunity. There is a sense about the city, which is the murder capital of France, with five times the national homicide rate, that it is actually beyond the power of authorities to do anything about it. That it has simply been left to its own devices. Several years ago already, in the summer of 2011, an incident occurred that got a lot of media coverage because it was so deeply symbolic of the situation.

A privately-run parking lot in the Porte d’Aix neighborhood, not far from the city center, was abandoned by the management company Vinci, who claimed that they were tired of dealing with the harassment and crime of the local gang of kids, and that they couldn’t insure the safety of their employees. The lot was soon taken over by the gang who ran the place, hitting up drivers for 5 Euros in order to leave the parking lot. The racket lasted for months. When the lot was finally evacuated, Vinci claimed the local authorities hadn’t done anything, the authorities claimed the police didn’t do enough in the neighborhood, and the police claimed that they regularly patrolled near the parking lot. Keeping in mind that the parking lot had formerly brought in about €100,000 of public revenue annually. “T.I.M,” you might say: This Is Marseille.

And this is the problem. In 2012, 24 people were killed in drug- and gang-related violence, and 15 have already been killed this year, despite the fact that both the Sarkozy government and the Hollande government each dispatched new brigades of hundreds more policemen and investigators in recent years. While I was editorial director of the news channel France 24, we produced a documentary about Marseille’s growing lawlessness that aired in October of 2011. Johnny, a 22-year-old aspiring rapper, drug dealer and gang leader, was one of the story’s affable characters, talking about himself as a kind of Robin Hood, just trying to get by without hurting anybody. A few months ago he was gunned down by a rival.

The sense of lawlessness in Marseille persists. Last summer, a socialist senator and district mayor from Marseille, Samia Ghali, called for the president to send in the army, raising eyebrows in her own party with this very un-leftist call for a kind of emergency martial law. Hollande at the time said this wasn’t the role of the army, and the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for a special inter-ministerial summit to study the Marseille problem. Last week, Samia Ghali renewed her call for the army to help insure security in Marseille. And the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, called for a “national pact” to solve the crisis, with an emergency meeting involving all of Marseilles’s elected officials that was held this (Saturday) morning.

The Marseille Problem obviously has no simple solution. But it is hard to get past the bizarreness of the fact that in the second biggest city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries–which sees the United States as being a violent and weapons-addled society–that drug bosses and gangs are running the show essentially undeterred in some neighborhoods.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

It’s unclear what the real root problems are and which to attack first: poverty, unemployment, alienated immigrant communities, gangs and violence itself? Marseille is a huge city with a  large immigrant population, high poverty, and among the highest unemployment rates in the country. But the problem runs even deeper, deep into the mafia history of the city, into the deeply-rooted culture of organized crime and omertà that goes back decades.

Still today, the local leadership will deny that this is all such a big deal. Marseille’s right-wing mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, an old-timer and a veteran of local and national politics (he is a former minister), sent aggressive tweets saying the media and the socialist government were giving a distorted image of Marseille and sullying its image. “Security issues” he tweeted, “allow too many politicians and the media to deform reality, to exaggerate the facts and hurt Marseille.”

The Marseille tradition of looking the other way seems to go way back, too. Here’s what the owner of a local bar where a man was shot dead said to a reporter from the French newspaper Libération, at the time of the parking lot affair. It sums up the resignation of locals who’ve gotten used to waiting for a solution to the Marseille problem:

“We don’t live in fear, we live in the expectation that this kind of thing will happen. Let me tell you, unlike other places, at least in Marseille they don’t mess up. They shoot, but not at customers. They know how to aim.”

Hello, This Is France Speaking, Are There Any Leaders Out There?

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The French Socialist Party is currently gathered at their annual summer summit.

As the August Paralysis (see my previous post about this) comes to an end, France is beginning to reawaken, with the politicians taking the lead. The great tradition in French politics is for each party to regroup in “Summer Schools,” which are informal summits that take place in lovely seaside spots or the south of France with a lot of networking and genuine hammering out of agendas. But while the Hollande administration gathered this week for a seminar with the theme “France in 2025,” and the Socialist party gathers now for their weekend summer school in La Rochelle (a pretty port town on the Atlantic coast), the opposition UMP party is…bickering. A lot.

And they’re bickering about something that probably seems very strange to the uninitiated. The different (and quite hostile) factions of the UMP are arguing about the right to perform a restrospective assessment of the Sarkozy presidency. It seems like an odd thing to forbid, since what else has any observer been doing since the moment the former president lost his bid for reelection. It also seems like an odd thing to forbid in a democracy! As though the president were some divine king figure whose actions were too sanctified to judge–at the risk of committing a crime of lèse-majesté. (This in itself says a lot about the way the figure of the president is perceived in France, and the way Sarkozy is, for the most part, perceived in his own party).

But here’s the thing: that fomer president is in the midst of doing what no other leader of a democracy in Europe–except Berlusconi in Italy–has ever done. After having failed to be reelected as president, he is unofficially making plans for a comeback to run for president again.

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Fomer French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made an official comeback in early July.

An assessment by his own party of what Sarkozy accomplished during his five years in office will undoubtedly highlight many accomplishments, but it’ll mostly be the occasion for the UMP party leaders who don’t support a comeback to enumerate all his mistakes and political miscalculations. It’s a very public way of undressing the emperor before he’s even made his first real sortie as a presidential candidate. For an election, by the way, which doesn’t take place until 2017. It’s also a missed opportunity for France’s primary opposition party to be focussing on the Hollande government actions at this crucial back-to-school moment.

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France in 2025?

In the French media this week, there was an interesting unity in the criticisms of both the right wing and the the left wing strategies at the moment. On the one hand the Hollande government was actually ridiculed for deciding to dedicate the opening cabinet meeting to speculations about the country 10 years from now, while the right-wing opposition was criticized for being narrow-mindedly focussed on their own past.

Neither party, it seemed, was talking about France…today.

“Partners Do Not Spy on Each Other”

Top Secret Spy Letterpress Wedding Invitation

Nothing tests a relationship more than…spying.

Things between France and the United States were already a little tense lately. In free-trade talks that took place between the U.S. and Europe a few weeks ago, France had insisted on excluding its culture industry. It prompted collective eyeball-rolling, and not just in the US delegation—many European countries were also opposed to the idea that France should be able to carve out its own unique little clause of exceptionalism. But (as always) the real confrontation was with the United States, since the real motive of the clause was to protect the French market from too many American blockbusters.

France won that confrontation with the U.S.—or, at least, won the right to preserve a French exception. It’s the U.S. that actually came out with the upper hand. As has often been the case with French economic and trade policy, it makes for bad PR. Imposing that kind of non-negotiable condition, threatening to veto any agreement if France wasn’t given a guarantee, is hardly fair-play in the relationship handbook. It’s my way or no way, is not a great way to start off “talks”, and although the reasons for the exception are certainly defendable (and some big Hollywood players even defended them), it reinforced France’s image as too-often protectionist, with an over-developed sense of its cultural entitlement. It was hard to find much political support for the tactic and overall it wasn’t great diplomacy.

And then it turns out the United States has been spying on France. Which is really bad diplomacy. At best, it’s terribly poor form, at worst, it’s a diplomatic incident that could actually threaten to derail the ongoing trans-atlantic free-trade talks. Either way, in the Franco-American couple, suddenly France has the upper hand again! “Partners do not spy on each other,” said Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner–that’s a pretty basic rule in the relationship handbook, too. President Hollande has had quite sharp words as well, demanding an explanation, and this time no one’s questioning France’s entitlement.

The French far left has been prompt–as always!–to respond to what looks to them like yet another American abuse of power, by suggesting that France go even further than outrage. The Green Party called on Mr. Hollande to grant the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, political asylum, saying that “it would allow France to remind the world that it intends to protect every whistleblower, regardless of his or her nationality.” Which, unpacked, actually means the following: “It would allow France to remind those arrogant, boorish Americans that despite their economic weight and their so-called special security concerns that allegedly justify all sorts of offensive measures, France isn’t going to take it lying down! France takes particular pride in human rights, which – don’t forget! – were created in France.” Or something like that.

The American defense so far has been to imply that, well, everybody spies. It’s just that the U.S. got busted (and that the scale of the spying is monumental). It’s like someone suddenly saying out loud what it looks like the United States has been thinking to itself all along: that we trust our friends, but not as much as we trust what we overhear our friends saying. Not what you want to hear from a partner. The National Security Agency can cite all sorts of terrorism and security concerns, but what this all uncomfortably looks like is an American sense of exceptionalism. An entitlement to do things our way, to take care of business however it needs to be taken care of, to assume that our security interests take precendence over pretty much anyone else’s rights.

“It’s an act of indescribable hostility!” raged the Fench Justice Minister, Christine Taubira. “This scandal reveals that even five years after the departure of Bush, America still poses as the supreme leader of the world,” denounced a conservative French lawmaker. Arrogant, heavy-handed, offensive, not to mention illegal: this spying affair has reinforced the United States’ reputation for self-righteousness and its own sense of entitlement. The French may be unreasonably protectionist, but the Americans are unbelievably presumptuous.

And when it comes to negotiating, what’s protecting a few hundred low-budget French movies compared to…stealing hundreds of millions of pieces of private data?