Monday, November 24, 2008

Saakashvili Takes Paris

A president and an intello walk into a Left-Bank bar...

As an exercise in diplomatic deployment, Mikhail Saakashvili had his French trip planned to near perfection. The French like you more if you've published a book. Check. Even better if the book is originally in French. Check two. And most of all if you've written the book with a card-carrying member of a dynasty of Nouveaux Philosophes. Check three.

Thus it was that last Wednesday night, I was yakking away, glass of red in hand in approved Left Bank form, in a crowded Georgian restaurant at the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés, waiting for the president of Georgia and his co-author Raphaël Glucksmann, who in equally approved form were both late. Piles of Je vous parle de liberté (Hachette Littératures, 2008) awaited inscribing under the watchful eye of two Hachette publicists. Nobody was checking invitations. There was no visible security among the modish crowd jostling for spicy canapés inside the bar and only a small police van parked at the corner of rue du Sabot and rue de Rennes down the block. You could not have better telegraphed that Saakashvili--who, as he reminded everyone regularly during his 48-hour-trip, spent a year studying in Strasbourg and there met his future wife--felt at home in France, in the Sixth Arrondissement, and with this crowd.

Saakashvili eventually arrived and gave a short, graceful speech in very good French--more family reunion than formal declaration--particularly saluting his co-author's father, André Glucksmann, the bowl-cut coiffed author of The Master Thinkers and famous as the reuniter of Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron (over the fate of Vietnamese boat-people in 1979). Glucksmann père floated above the proceedings looking like a gaunt but rather healthy mummy. He had read him while a student, Saakashvili explained, marvelling that someone understood the Soviet evil so well. He had not even known if Glucksmann were still alive, much less could he have imagined that he would one day meet the philosopher's son in a muddy park in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, that the two would become friends, and would write a book together. Everyone in the overcrowded room was smiling. After all, one could hardly do better in terms of well-connected tourisme engagé. (The French don't play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon but Six Degrés de Jean-Paul Sartre.)

It was a perfect moment, one of the best of Saakashvili's whole tour. He was in France to make the case that Russia had violated the terms of the imperfect cease-fire agreements negotiated by Sarkozy in the name of the European Union on August 12 and September 8, and urge firmness. Saakashvili had even cadged an Elysée invite from Sarko just a day before the EU-Russia summit began in Nice with the French in the seat of the rotating EU presidency.

Throughout his whirlwind tour, Saakashvili was careful to give credit to the Sarkozy-led EU intervention, but it was felt at the time that the Europeans had conceded too much, especially in treating as a fait accompli a Russian military presence in the two seceding Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, Europe is split between the established "engagement with Russia is necessary" line, peddled by Commission president José Manuel Barroso among others, and a resistance front let by the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, and a somewhat wobbly Gordon Brown, who argue that there should be no resumption of talks on EU-Russia commercial partnership before Russia pulls back the 8,000 soldiers she has on the ground --some as close to Tbilisi as 30 miles. Overall, the engagement line is winning.

Nowhere could this be more strongly felt than on France Inter, the state radio, bright and early Thursday morning as Saakashvili sat in the studio as the guest of the 8 A.M. news program. We French still get our hard news and spin from radio throughout the day, only switching to television at night. France Inter is a kind of mass-market NPR, with a relentlessly po-faced liberal line that has only ever pleased, or sought to please, the Quai d'Orsay--as France's foreign ministry is known (the mandarins, not the minister himself, whose ideas are largely seen as irrelevant by his administration).

They were awaiting the Georgian aventuriste loaded for bear. Introducing the guest, Bernard Guetta, the morning foreign affairs moderator, reminded us that Saakashvili's calling Europe's possible abandonment of Georgia a "new Munich" had "the support of the American right." Having painted the Neocon cross squarely on Saakashvili's chest, Guetta continued. Georgia had "provoked" Russia, which felt threatened by the suggestion of an "unnecessary and unfeasible extension of NATO" to Georgia and Ukraine, but "thankfully" the United States "had not moved" to defend its ally. Common sense and world stability dictated that Europe and the United States should abstain from "pushing Russia too far" and should instead consider her "offer of cooperation." Nicolas Demorand, France Inter's news editor, then brought out "independent evidence" that Georgia had attacked first. Even the listeners during the phone-in segment were hostile.

Saakashvili, though, gave as good as he got. The OSCE monitor who gave the supposed "independent evidence" has since been fired, he countered. "There wasn't a single Georgian soldier on Russian soil at any time. It was our towns which were bombed, our territory which was invaded, our population which was pushed out or killed by the thousands, even after the EU agreement was signed." A town called Akhalgory was even renamed Leningory: "This in the 21st century." His hosts were dismissive and urged him to reconsider. Joining NATO was a pipedream. "America's support for Georgia weakens and will weaken even more under President Obama." In vain did Saakashvili quote the president-elect's words from the debates, or note Senator Biden's trip to Georgia during the summer war. "Don't you feel how the wind is changing in Washington?" he was admonished.

The rest of the day, save for his 40-minute meeting with Sarkozy, Saakashvili spent giving print interviews, taping more television segments, and, finally, joining Raphaël Glucksmann on Le Grand Journal, a one-hour early evening news program on Canal+, France's premier pay-TV channel.

This could have gone for or against Saakashvili. Glucksmann's presence and the duo's practiced, if slightly smug, allusions to their youth, clinched it. The Le Monde-quoting Saakashvili (with one more reference to meeting his wife in Strasbourg) was anointed as cool by both the studio audience and the show's regulars. These had decided to use the occasion to bash Sarkozy, always a well-received exercise. ("He campaigned saying that Putin had Chechen blood on his hands, and now they're best buddies! All he answered last summer when Putin said he wanted to have you 'strung up by the balls' was 'You can't do that, do you want to end up like George Bush?' ")

Saakashvili smiled at the show's famous political puppets, at the generously décolletaged weather girl, and even during the short video segment showing him coming out of the Elysée meeting earlier in the afternoon and looking a little forlorn on the palace steps when Sarkozy turns away after shaking his hand. The Georgian president demonstrated the required sense of distance accepted as proper manners in the postmodern political discourse practiced by countries where the memories of foreign invasion has faded away.

Throughout his French tour, Saakashvili gave his rather impressively sophisticated all and could only hope that it had advanced the cause of his beleaguered country on the European stage.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sarkozy has been played like a Stradivarius by Putin and Medvdev

November 19, 2008 6:00 AM
| Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Journalist; Executive Director, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute
French Lessons For The U.S.

President-elect Barack Obama has lessons to learn from France's Nicolas Sarkozy, but they may not be what Sarkozy intended. When he greeted the visiting Democratic candidate at the Elysée last summer, the French president meant for a bit of Obama's cool to rub off on him (and his dwindling poll ratings.) He also wanted to play the elder statesman, bequeathing the wealth of his foreign-affairs experience on the freshman from far-away Illinois. As it turns out, it's Sarko who's been played, like a Stradivarius, by the redoubtable team of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and his remote handler Vladimir Putin, at the EU-Russia summit at Nice last week-end.

Sarkozy, who as recently as 2006 peppered his ultimately successful presidential campaign with statements like "I'd rather shake hands with George Bush than with Vladimir Putin - Putin has Chechen blood on his hands," has of late experienced what can be termed a Damascene conversion in more ways than one. Russia, he believes, must be "engaged". (So must Putin himself, it would seem: at his first G-8 last year, Sarko was snapped lending his cell phone to the Russian strongman, so that he, Putin, could share a joke with his, Sarkozy's, wife.)

The French president built his political reputation on his willingness to personally engage any number of opponents. He made the cardinal mistake of thinking that he could successfully bluff his way among the autocrat leaders of an empire stretching over 12 time zones, who cut their political teeth in a totalitarian system punishing thoughtcrime with secret police, tanks, and a prison camp system second to none. Why not? the reasoning seems to have gone. It worked with union picket lines, angry demonstrators, even a hostage-taker threatening to bomb a primary school when Sarkozy was the 28-year-old mayor of a Paris suburb. Sarko has always trusted his gut, and most of the time this has served him well - together with his genuine physical courage.

But winging it, even with the best intentions, simply doesn't work in this case. For the sake of "engagement", Sarkozy, in his capacity as rotating president of the EU, abandoned beleaguered Georgia, and agreed to resume talks on EU-Russian economic partnership, event though Russia violates to this day even the favourable ceasefire brokered by that self-same Sarkozy last August in Tbilisi - there are Russian troops not only in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as close as 30 miles from the Georgian capital.

To "help" Medvedev feel he was in congenial company in Nice, and - as he thought - get the negotiating ball rolling - Sarko didn't hesitate to state that the US plans to install an anti-missile shield against Iranian nukes in willing countries like Poland or the Czech Republic "would bring nothing to European security." (Only the week before, Medvedev, for his part, had shown no compunction to threaten to target missiles on EU and NATO countries.)

Sarkozy believes he can "mediate" between Russia and the West. He is wrong on several counts. The first is that no-one gave him a mandate. (He believes success will validate him after the fact, but his definition of "success" while bleeding advantages left and right should be unacceptable to the West and the United States.) The second is that he seems to forget what Ronald Reagan always knew (from his past as a tough union negotiator battling Communists in Hollywood): that for a certain type, which was Russian even before it was Soviet, everything that's theirs is theirs and everything that's yours is negotiable. The third is that you do not talk with an adversary who does not share your basic values without preconditions. It is strange that Sarkozy understands this about Iran, but won't see it when it comes to Russia. From all accounts, President-elect Obama does see this about Russia, but is still uncertain about Iran. Each of them should learn something from the other; but they should not be mistaken on what there is to learn.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet & Hudson Institute, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Euro Shoe-In

Here in Paris it is the bright sunny dawn of November 4th - “just the day,” interviewees tell you unselfconsciously on the morning news, “to start liking America again.” It doesn’t matter that the first US election results won’t fall until the small hours tomorrow (a day scheduled with rain.) The French have already elected - anointed - Barack Obama as The US President They Want.

For weeks now, neither newspapers nor radio or television channels have even bothered sending a reporter with the McCain campaign, which they view as best as an irrelevance, and mainly as a useful foil for the Tales of Barack. (Voters repelled by Sarah Palin’s anti-abortion stance? Check. McCain partisans guilty of racism in the voting booth? Check. Gun-totin’ embittered Joe Six-Packs shooting baby fawns from their pick-up trucks on the way to the megachurch? Check.)

Instead, reporters have been dispatched to Harlem to report on the planning of street parties tonight (France Info); to Dixville, NH for the first Democrat victory of the day (“the first since Humbert Humphrey’s candidacy in 1968,” France 2 TV adds helpfully); even to Hawaii for the coming funeral of Madelyn Dunham, the candidate’s grandmother (TF1 TV, which never thinks of mentioning how Mrs Dunham first entered the campaign rhetoric, as a useful comparison to Rev. Wright in terms of racial prejudice.) America, we are told, will finally set an example to the world.

And what if, in a surprise upset, this beloved screenplay is brutally rewritten?

“There will be riots,” pundits pronounce. Those riots, you understand, would be justified. America’s “visible minorities” will have been cheated of their victory. So will ours, who have no hope in the next decade of achieving anything like the US’s political integration. What few Muslims and French-African politicians occupy Cabinet jobs were high-handedly appointed by a right-wing president, Sarkozy, going against established habit and party power plays in apportioning the spoils. Not coincidentally, those same appointees have been the butt of most of the criticism levelled at the government by professional civil service leakers. Rachida Dati, the Justice minister, who is of Algerian/Moroccan origin, has been branded “incompetent”, “unqualified,” and, yes, “a diva.” Fadela Amara, the Housing Undersecretary, a French-Algerian feminist, is “disorganised and can’t run a team.” Sounds familiar?

In reality, we Europeans, who pride ourselves on our supposed forward thinking, respect nothing more than Establishment figures. In our reasoning, it is up to you, dear American voters, to provide us with the right Harvard Law School grad of the right colour, to simply start the wheels of change here (and to keep our restless minorities happy in the bargain.) How could you even consider disappointing us? What better motive can there be? Make the Paris MSM and French political party machines time-servers happy! Vote Obama!

© Copyright Hudson Institute New York & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Old World Wiles

As the European press from L'Humanité to the Financial Times (what were they smoking?) endorses the Imminent Coming Of Saint Barack, we other Europeans are seized by a strangely familiar feeling. We have been here before. Namely in 1981, when 23 years of conservative (Gaullist, at any rate) rule in France finally ended with the election of the Socialist François Mitterrand. Mitterrand appointed four Communist ministers among his cabinet, and proceeded to nationalize the banks (sounds familiar?) as well as most large industrial corporations. France resolutely ploughed into the Reagan-Thatcher Eighties in deep contrarian denial: exchange controls, punitive redistributive taxes, a shorter workweek, legal vacation time raised from 4 to 5 weeks annually, a 10% raise on the minimum wage, etc.

Wealth had to be shared. The byword was solidarité: the new wealth tax went by the acronym ISF, Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune (it has never been abolished since all our successive presidents believe our Marxist-lite media-massaged public opinion wouldn’t stand for it.) Keynesian economics would inevitably provide jobs and prosperity. When newly-flush consumers had the bad taste to prefer Japanese-made VCRs to French-produced goods, stiff tariffs and regulations were slapped on faster than you can say WTO. The result was predictable: inflation; more, not less, unemployment; and successive devaluations of the franc.

It took Mitterrand’s sobered cohorts, minus the Communists who did not survive the first Cabinet reshuffle, less than two years to make a complete u-turn. By the mid-80s, France was dipping a collective toe in the uncharted waters of stock-market deregulation. By 1990, a nominally-Socialist Finance minister (later PM), Pierre Bérégovoy, prided himself on the success of Paris’s derivatives exchange.

It would be tempting to resign oneself to the likely election of Barack Obama as a coming moment of painful silliness, tinged with vainglorious ideology, to be endured for a relatively short time, before its more noxious side-effects can be reversed. Some points, after all, have to be made. The French wanted to show that the Fifth Republic was not the property of a single party. Americans would like to prove - to themselves first - that they have put behind them for good a past of racism and bigotry.

Mitterrand and Obama, both lawyers with little actual practice but ample oratory gifts, have a lot in common, foremost a burning ambition and far less ideological principles than their troops. The Obama who cites as solipsistic proof of his executive experience the very fact that he is running a large campaign, is not so far removed from the maneuvering Fourth Republic hack who showed an undistinguished but long career as evidence of his capacity to lead the Republic. Supporting in turn Vichy France and the resistance, French Algeria then anti-Colonialism, anti-Communists then the Socialist-CP alliance, François Mitterrand never failed to reinvent himself in the direction he felt would more advance his personal ambition. (The Socialist Party he remodelled to his own specifications ended up with a lot in common with the Chicago Democrat machine, too.) In throwing under the bus his pastor or his foreign adviser, Obama shows signs of a similar flexibility.

Yet the situation is hardly comparable. In an interesting reversal, a President Obama might well find himself the Leftmost head of State at any forthcoming G8 among the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel and Harper, just as the Socialist Mitterrand had to deal with Maggie and Ronnie. But the world was a far less interconnected place a quarter of century ago. Economic decisions in France affected the world economy even less than they would today. The leading position of the US, despite constant claims that it’s been overtaken by the New Tigers, means that a housing slump in North Dakota influences the Italian stock market - and an Italian stock market plunge destroys jobs in Detroit. The stakes today are higher, faster, riskier.

And, of course, there’s the rhinoceros in the room - foreign policy and the threat from Islamist extremism. For all his faults - he misread, and mistrusted, the collapse of Communism, and appointed as his last Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, the architect of codified international anti-Americanism - François Mitterrand fell on the right side of the fence at critical moments, such as when France sent troops to Beirut in 1982, or joined the first Gulf War coalition. The worst terrorist attacks on French soil occurred under Mitterrand, masterminded by Algerian Salafists or Pasdaran-commissioned Iranians. A Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 58 of our paratroopers at 6:20am on October 23, 1983, precisely two minutes after another hit 241 US marines at Beirut airport. An old man with a very long memory and an acute sense of the balance of power, Mitterrand would never have opened talks with Iran without stiff preconditions.

Obama has none of these old world wiles. Surrounded by superannuated Carter administration hacks, frisky neo-Marxists, and UN-admiring CFR alumni, he buys into the al-Jazeera image of the US and believes America can gain the world’s affection with the same charming techniques he employed to win a seat on the Illinois State Senate, or that his wife deployed to soften her image on The View. He may realize his error at the first lost round of negotiations, but by then it might be too late.

© Copyright Hudson Institute New York & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The French press play it cool over Rachida Dati

Rachida Dati
French journalists are keeping quiet about the father
of Rachida Dati's unborn child

The French press is hunting for the name of the father of (unmarried) justice minister Rachida Dati's unborn child. Well, the journalists write that they are. When you break Poilâne with them at chic dinner parties, they tell you they have known for weeks. The names being bandied about include a television show host, two millionaire chief executives, married former Spanish premier José-María Aznar and even Nicolas Sarkozy.

Twenty years ago, it was the same with François Mitterrand's mistress and her daughter. It was only the public, poor saps, who weren't supposed to know. It's always been the case with French journalists that they would rather be in the loop than have a scoop, which is why they don't really complain about the country's stringent privacy laws.

When the elegant Ms Dati, sporting a slightly rounded belly under a charcoal cashmere jumper, told inquiring hacks: "I have a very complicated private life, and that's where I draw the line with the press," they didn't push her. At any rate, she said, she was 42, which meant she was still at a stage where her pregnancy might not succeed. "If it happens, I'll be over the moon. If not, I'll be hugely disappointed, but I'll put on a coat of lipstick, and I'll carry this burden alone."

You might expect more than one French politician to seize this opportunity to brand Dati as another "pitbull with lipstick", using the best example of the breed, the US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But Ms Dati is getting a cushy ride, from the Right-most wing of her party to the extreme Left. Single mother? Pregnant? Yawn. France, which encourages marriage and children with significant tax incentives and benefits, is not hung up on what people here won't even call "morality". Will she stay on as minister? "It's not an illness," Ms Dati snaps. Of course she will. This will make her the fourth pregnant French cabinet minister in office; before her, Ségolène Royal, Florence Parly, and Frédérique Bredin had babies while taking their boxes all the way to the maternity clinic. The unmarried Royal even invited a camera crew to her delivery room, which was rightly seen as the first step of her presidential bid.

* Mrs Palin is getting no credit in France for being a successful, savvy woman and an exciting new face in politics. If the US elections were held in France, Barack Obama would poll a Mugabe-esque 83 per cent of the vote. Palin is painted here as an ignorant religious fanatic, a gun nut, and proof positive that the American heartland is a more dangerous place than Anbar province.

She is also seen as irrelevant, and one more reason why John McCain's bid is doomed. Even the usually sharp-antennaed Sarkozy tilts towards Obama, whom, unlike McCain, he greeted on the Élysée steps and favoured with a high-profile joint press conference during the American's whirlwind French visit. It will be interesting to watch reassessments should the Republican ticket win.

* Long defined as a country of farmers, France is slowly seeing wimpy townie manners take over. The inhabitants of the Alpine village of Villaz (pop 3,000) are suing a local farmer, Michel Déronzier, because they don't like being kept awake by his herd of Pie Rouges' cowbells at night.

"It's only seven cows out of 70 who have a bell!" Déronzier protests. "It's necessary, because it helps the dogs locate them faster. And at any rate, there have always been cowbells in the country. If people don't like it, they should move to the city; they won't like the noise of cars there." So far, it's a standoff.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Le Kennedy Noir

Paris sulks: Why Berlin and not us?

However you slice it, the Obama whirlwind Paris tour (three hours on the ground), sandwiched between the candidate's rock-star speech to ecstatic crowds in Berlin's Tiergarten and dinner with Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, left the French, well, rather miffed. It was the second question posed at the press conference Obama gave with President Sarkozy at the Elysée on Friday afternoon. "Is it," the Agence France-Presse reporter asked, noting that the candidate had chosen Berlin for his major speech, "because it's not so well considered to like France in America?"

Obama waffled elegantly, choosing to explain that he'd already been abroad for an unprecedented period, over a week, unheard of for a candidate. (There was more than a hint of weary duty at work here, as if he were already president with a life constrained by greater forces, instead of having calibrated the entire exercise, from Helmand Province to Whitehall, with a micron-accurate eye to the best transformative spin.) Later in the 40-minute conference, Obama obliquely acknowledged the point, crediting Sarkozy, with whom he'd been indulging in a somewhat self-conscious best-buddies lovefest throughout, with "having made it possible to call French fries 'French fries' again in America." "Americans love France," he protested.

Setting the tone, Sarko sparked guffaws with his less convincing opening statement that "the French love America." ("It would be worse if I didn't say it," he countered, which elicited more genuine laughter.)

Amid all the courteous hypocrisies, it was obvious each saw in the other a first-rate political animal. Sarkozy had been quick to recall he'd met Obama in Washington back in 2006, when he himself was a candidate for the presidency. "And during that visit, Mr. Sarkozy only met with two senators, myself and John McCain," Obama added. "So it's obvious he has a very good political nose."

"When I think of the two of us sitting in that [Senate] office that day," Sarko reminisced, "well, one has managed to get elected. It's the other's turn now, isn't it? I'm not saying this to meddle. France will do very well with whoever becomes president of the United States."

Obama, whom French pundits call le Kennedy noir, had traveled to the Middle East and Europe to acquire gravitas and foreign-affairs polish. Sarkozy made much of what the two men had in common.

"We are both the sons of immigrants, with foreign-sounding names, went into politics at a time when people like us weren't expected to get to the top, and we both beat women opponents in a presidential contest" he said, very much aware of the reflected glamour Obama-who by some polls is favored by 86 percent of the French-could shine on his own currently dismal numbers. (The first question at the press conference, from an articulate and pugnacious black American reporter, was to Sarkozy, asking how he felt standing next to someone who looked like the people he'd called "scum" when faced with riots as minister of the interior. Sarkozy replied that he was the first French president to appoint people very much like that to his cabinet, pointing out that during the 2005 French race riots, "nobody died, and the only injured were in the ranks of the police. Thank you for allowing me to make that point.")

Obama, you could tell, was the ultimate arm-candy for embattled European leaders, beating even Carla Bruni (Sarkozy's beautiful new wife, who remained absent from the short Paris proceedings) in sheer wattage. And the senator knew it. His staff, no doubt briefed on the not very dignified leadership free-for-all currently tearing apart the French Socialist party, had cagily refused to meet with any French opposition leaders. Adding insult to injury, Obama did agree to see Britain's David Cameron, the Conservative leader, telegraphing an undiplomatic but probably accurate assessment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political chances.

When challenged by the AFP reporter, Obama said apologetically he felt he'd been addressing not just Germany but all of Europe from Berlin. From anyone else, this could have been taken as the height of tactlessness, but Obama, facing a smaller but just as enthusiastic audience in the Elysée's Salle des Fêtes as he had near the Berlin Victory column, was given a free pass.

For in Paris, it's the media and the banlieues (the projects) that drive the Obamamania filling every front page, from Libération to Le Figaro. There were more people inside the Elysée, jostling for a seat in the press room or a good camera angle in front of the palace, than in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré outside. A crowd 300 strong, including a sizable number of tourists and more black faces than one usually sees in this exclusive part of town, started a chant of "Yes, We Can!" outside as the candidate's motorcade was leaving at full speed for the airport, followed by a busload of traveling correspondents. We, the Paris-based press, went to interview them under the blasé gaze of the police.

"Did you see him? Isn't he marvelous?" a cheerful secretary named Victoire, come specially from her office near the Opéra with a girlfriend, gushed. "We wouldn't see this in France." "That's why America is so formidable," said the friend, who like Victoire was born in northern Paris of Cameroonian parents.

I couldn't help contrasting their large smiles and enthusiastic tone with the silkily venomous and cultured voice of Hubert Védrine, the former Socialist foreign minister, heard this very morning on Radio Luxembourg. Védrine coined the expression "hyperpower" about America. He opposes it. It was, he explained, simply time for America to understand she couldn't go it alone, but had to behave responsibly among other nations and international institutions. Unfortunately, in his view, Barack Obama had started making worrisome statements, several steps back from his earlier multilateralist commitments. "But you know," Védrine confided to his morning-show audience with Talleyrand-like sophistication, "that's just the way you have to win an election, isn't it? From a few things Mr. Obama has let escape, I think he still believes in the principles he had at the beginning. I am very hopeful."

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008

L'Affaire Enderlin

Being a French journalist means never having to say you're sorry.

To understand the al-Dura affair, it helps to keep one thing in mind: In France, you can't own up to a mistake. This is a country where the law of the Circus Maximus still applies: Vae victis, Woe to the vanquished. Slip, and it's thumbs-down. Not for nothing was Brennus a Gaul. His modern French heirs don't do apologies well, or at all if they can possibly help it. Why should they? That would be an admission of weakness. Blink, and you become the fall guy.

So, in the case of Muhammad al-Dura-a 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli fire during a skirmish in the Gaza strip on September 30, 2000-it was not really to be expected that the journalist who released the 59-second news report, Charles Enderlin, longtime Jerusalem correspondent for France 2 TV, would immediately admit having hastily slapped together sensational footage supplied by the channel's regular Palestinian stringer, and not checked whose bullets had, in fact, killed, or perhaps even not killed, the boy.

In the ensuing eight years, the small figure of Muhammad al-Dura cowering beside his crouching father became the defining image of the second Intifada. The "child martyr's" picture cropped up on posters, websites, postage stamps, and street names throughout the Muslim world from Mali to Indonesia, fueling lynchings and suicide bombings. The Israeli authorities at first took the French report more or less at face value and blandly deplored the child's death in a hasty release ("To the best of our knowledge, the boy was hit by our fire"). Others, however, were not so sure.

They parsed and scoured each of the 59 seconds of the film and every corner of the location for clues, ballistic angles, improbable moves, and hidden motivations. The film showed the two figures first seeking cover from gunfire, then later slumped over, though with no sign of blood or wounds. When increasingly convincing voices came to question, at the very least, the point of origin of the shots-the location of the small Israeli garrison made it pretty much impossible for Muhammad and his father, who was allegedly wounded, to have been hit by Israeli bullets-it took six weeks for the Israeli army spokesman to state in an interview that "both versions of the incident [are] possible," and two more months for an official investigation to be launched.

Meanwhile, Enderlin and his bosses at the state-run France 2, who had distributed their news item free worldwide, were refusing to answer questions. They flatly declined to provide the complete 27 minutes of footage taken that afternoon by the cameraman, or to concede any possible error, ping-ponging in the classical obfuscating pattern of bureaucracies everywhere. ("It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" hasn't yet made it to France.) It took two years for Enderlin to give his first interview, to a friendly colleague, Elisabeth Schemla, the respected editor of the website and a former L'Express associate editor, in the course of which he confused "protecting one's sources" with not providing the tape. (Personal disclosure: I was at the time deputy editor of

Even an hour-long documentary produced in 2002 by the award-winning German broadcaster Esther Schapira, who works for German state television's First Channel, failed to make a dent in the stance of France 2. While purposely keeping away from more controversial theories, Schapira's work comprehensively put paid to the "Israeli bullets killed Muhammad al-Dura" theory. Asked by Schemla why French television would not broadcast Schapira's film, Enderlin stonewalled: "I don't decide what the channel runs. I have bosses, there are people above me in charge  .  .  .  a professional hierarchy."

Having dug in his heels in time-honored fashion, Enderlin, a seasoned journalist and a French-Israeli dual national who'd spent most of his adult life at the same job, never imagined the al-Dura story would dog him. He was covered by his superiors in the hierarchy, affording him the Zen-like serenity achievable in large French organizations, which are profoundly top-down and basically unchanged in spirit since the court of the Sun King. His coverage of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while regularly criticized by pro-Israeli groups, was highly esteemed by his peers. He had produced a well-informed documentary series on the Oslo Accords, the peace process, and the 2000 Camp David talks, tied to a book that has been published in English; and, while it could be argued that he was perhaps too close to some of his sources (several of the parties to the peace talks actually held discussions at the France 2 bureau, loaned by a helpful Enderlin as discreet neutral ground), this was a notable achievement. Such a person could not, in the order of things, be seriously threatened by a bunch of activists or scruffy bloggers behind their computer screens questioning his professional judgment. When he dismissed accusations of a cover-up by explaining that he had chosen "not to show the full footage of the child's agony," which would have been "unbearable," he fully expected to be taken on trust.

Yet the bloggers and the activists refused to let the story die. In fact the unlikely alliance of, among others, a professor of medieval history from Boston University, a hot-headed former financial executive, and a former Le Monde reporter soon brought to light practices that would surprise no journalist with experience working in a totalitarian state. Most foreign correspondents covering the Palestinian territories from Israel rely on local stringers, cameramen, fixers. These Palestinian nationals do not benefit from the protections routinely granted international journalists. They and their families can be subjected to all sorts of pressures by a system not known for its respect for human rights and free speech niceties. The staging of scenes for the benefit of photographers is common.

The medieval history professor, Richard Landes, a soft-spoken American who spent his childhood in France and got his early education in a Paris public school, now one of the case's most devoted parsers, coined a word for Palestinian manipulation of the media: "Pallywood." He believes the whole al-Dura incident was staged. Using footage taken by other cameramen on the scene that day, he argues his case forcefully on two well-visited and regularly updated websites ( and as well as in countless articles and interviews.

Enter the hothead. Philippe Karsenty is a French Jew who felt so let down by the mainstream coverage of the second Intifada and the Middle East in general that he gave up a successful career in finance to start a media monitoring agency. His Media Ratings (web address challenges the validity of press stories on all subjects with a test he dubs "the P.H.I.L.T.R.E method," rating articles for "accuracy, consistency, independence, freedom, transparency, accountability, and exhaustiveness." Karsenty took up the al-Dura case and started firing away at everyone he saw as responsible for perpetrating a dangerous lie.

Karsenty is a boyish character in his early 40s with rapid-fire delivery, a serious cell-phone habit, and an unflagging, self-appointed sense of mission. He makes enemies among his friends with as much gusto as he takes on the French establishment. (There is something of the neighborhood kid ringing all the doorbells on the block about him.) He has attacked various French Jewish leaders as well as France 2's news director, Arlette Chabot; Enderlin; France 2's chairman, Patrick de Carolis; and a slew of politicians. He routinely uses expressions such as "I will bury him!" and "I will end that conniving bastard's career!" He is a bit mad, but it can be argued that many saints and heroes were a bit mad-if Joan of Arc had been happier in her Lorraine village, we Parisians might all be speaking English.

Karsenty is no saint, but it was his peculiar blend of bravado, doggedness, testosterone, and plain bad manners that eventually caused France 2 to blink. (I was reminded, meeting him, of the former New York senator Alfonse D'Amato, who gloried in his "Brooklyn Rottweiler" nickname and was turned loose by the Senate Banking Committee on Swiss banks that refused to reveal the number and balances of their Holocaust victims' accounts. Until then, the Swiss had only been confronted with polite delegations headed by the suave likes of Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, and Stuart Eizenstat, the former undersecretary of state. They had gotten nowhere. D'Amato, taking no prisoners, unlocked the process in a couple of months.)

At any rate, two years ago, after one Karsenty op-ed too many about the "arrant hoax" of the al-Dura affair, France 2 sued him for libel. In a country where judges are civil servants, their first ruling surprised few observers: They ruled for the national institution, France 2, and ordered the outsider, Karsenty, to pay one euro in damages to the plaintiffs, a fine of 1,000 euros, and another 3,000 euros in costs. Even accounting for France's relatively moderate legal rates, this was a slap on the wrist. Taking a gamble, Karsenty appealed.

The appeals court convened last month and asked for-gasp-evidence, namely the famous 27-minute France 2 unedited master footage, which not even Enderlin had seen when he filed his item for the evening news. (His Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmeh, had sent him by remote link about 6 minutes from which to make the news segment.) France 2, dragging its feet, eventually produced 18 minutes of film. (There is practically no such thing as "contempt of court" in such circumstances in the French judicial system.) The showing of this film made for an eerie moment at the trial, when the hitherto blasé judges sat up and started watching with more attention, then took a recess, after which they asked for all of France 2's footage. It would prove to be the turning point in the proceeding.

Karsenty came to court loaded for bear, with trolleyfuls of documentation, including a 90-page ballistics report. Out of it all, the court also trained its sights on a telling 2005 Le Figaro opinion piece by two establishment journalists, Denis Jeambar, then editor in chief of L'Express (France's answer to Newsweek), and Daniel Leconte, head of news documentaries at the state-run French-German cultural channel, Arte (a kind of French-German PBS), both unlikely participants in this undignified scrum. Jeambar and Leconte, egged on by a former Le Monde journalist, Luc Rosenzweig, who had taken a great interest in the case and started writing about it for the small Israeli news outfit Mena, asked France 2 as early as 2004 to show them the original raw rushes. Acknowledging Jeambar and Leconte's weight in the French establishment, France 2 had done for them what it had refused to do for countless others and had shown them, and Rosenzweig, the 27 minutes of film.

What happened then was typical of the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof behavior even powerful French figures display when faced with any kind of violation of the unspoken but well-understood order of precedence obtaining among the elite here. While Jeambar and Leconte took their time to ponder what they'd seen, Rosenzweig had the nerve to file a piece for Mena describing the tape's scenes of staging just before the fatal shooting. You could see Palestinians being carried on stretchers into ambulances, then coming out again unharmed, all in a kind of carnival atmosphere, with kids throwing stones and making faces at the camera, despite what was supposed to be a tense situation. The tape showed occasional gunshots, not continuous firing. From the general horsing around captured on film by Abu Rahmeh, Mena concluded that the whole scene must have been staged.

Their being preempted by Rosenzweig incensed Leconte and Jeambar, who expressed their displeasure in the 2005 op-ed in the center-right Le Figaro. They spent so much of the piece denouncing Rosenzweig, his gall in reporting first on what he'd seen in the company of his betters, and the conclusions he'd dared draw independently, that it was easy to overlook a key fact: Jeambar and Leconte themselves not only conceded that the tape showed Palestinians stage-managing various shots and horsing around, they also described joking about those very scenes with the France 2 executives who were screening the tape for them.

All of those present at the screening-illustrious visitors and France 2 executives alike, the op-ed recounted-had ended up in full agreement that it was impossible to determine where the bullets had come from, but that it was highly unlikely that they could have come from the Israeli garrison. More crucially, Jeambar and Leconte also had caught Enderlin lying (or, as they kindly put it, "extrapolating"): "There was no 'unbearable agony' of the child anywhere on the tape," they wrote. "It wasn't edited out, it simply did not exist."

The Figaro piece had little impact when it was published, but it turned out to be one of the crucial elements in Karsenty's challenge to France 2's version of events. He won his appeal. The ruling, handed down on May 21, stated that he had acted in good faith as a media commentator and that he had presented a "coherent body of evidence," although the hoax could not be definitively proven. The judge also noted "inexplicable inconsistencies and contradictions in the explanations by Charles Enderlin," whose appearance in court was his first sworn testimony in the matter.

You might think Enderlin's professional standing would have been damaged by all this. You would be wrong. In less than a week, a petition was whipped up by his friends at Le Nouvel Observateur, France's premier left-wing newsweekly. The petition conceded no gray areas, no hint of doubt. It called Karsenty's vehemently argued but exhaustively documented stance a "seven-year hate-filled smear campaign" aimed at destroying Enderlin's "professional dignity." It flatly stated in the opening paragraph that Muhammad al-Dura was killed "by shots coming from the Israeli position." It expressed rank astonishment at a legal ruling "granting equal credibility to a journalist renowned for his rigorous work, and to willful deniers ignorant of the local realities and with no journalistic experience." It professed concern about a jurisprudence that would-shock! horror!-allow "anyone, in the name of good faith and of a supposed right to criticize and so-called freedom of speech, to smear with impunity the honor and the reputation of news professionals."

There followed the names of over 300 journalists-sorry, "news professionals"-and hundreds more miscellaneous celebrity intellectuals (under the heading "Personalités"), as well as a vast slew of mere web surfers ("Internautes"). Note, here again, that while the journalists were listed in apparently neutral alphabetical order, the managing editor of a provincial news conglomerate cheek by jowl with a lowly travel magazine stringer-the key distinction between pros and outsiders was maintained. It was as if the eight-year controversy had been irrelevant. From "news professionals," who were viewed as right by definition, no accountability could possibly be required. The guild was closing ranks.

Scanning the long list (to which new signatures are added daily at the Nouvel Obs website), I experienced a kind of life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment. There were the names of people from every magazine or newspaper I'd ever worked at; people I'd trained with; people I'd been great pals with before life packed us off in different directions; and people I'd last seen only the week before. It was, to tell the truth, Stepford-like scary.

I resolved to call as many of the familiar names as I could. I knew, or thought I knew, where these people came from. Why had they signed? It might be awkward to ask, I reasoned, but wasn't it our business to ask questions?

As it turned out, it was plenty awkward. I came to recognize the moment when, after the "voice-from-your-past" greetings and the "where-are-you-now" fat-chewing and the nostalgic memories of past editors, colleagues, competitors, copy-takers ("all done by computer now, nobody to tell you you're not making sense!"), I got around to the subject at hand. As I started explaining that I was writing a piece on the al-Dura affair and was wondering why they had signed the petition, I learned to recognize the telltale pause, the "Good Lord, she's caught Scientology! She's gone over to the crazies!" moment, after which the whole object of the exercise would become to hang up on me as fast as possible.

There were those, like a foreign editor at a liberal magazine with whom I'd spent boozy evenings bemoaning the failings of our respective boyfriends 25 years ago, who now brushed me off like an inconvenience. "Haven't got time, too many pages to edit, staffer off sick, really, why do you ask such questions, have a catastrophic week, can't really talk to you until . . . well, Friday, but you will have filed by Friday, right?"

"Oh, no, there'll still be time on Friday." (Palpable disappointment on the line.) I did call the following Friday-I only got past her voicemail by reprogramming my cell phone not to send out my caller ID-and got an angry hiss in answer to my greeting. "I'm in an interview, can't talk, have nothing to say"-click.

There was the noted Paris-based former Washington Post foreign correspondent, 75-year-old Jon Randal, a Middle East expert I'd looked up to for years as a cub reporter, who trenchantly explained that he was seeing in all this a dangerous American trend of "vindictive pressure groups interfering with news organizations," now unfortunately crossing the Atlantic. (Having lived in Paris for over 40 years, Jon had become alarmingly French.)

"Americans have been under the gun of such people for some time, but France used to be free of this kind of thing. [These groups] are paranoid, they're persistent, they never give up, they sap the energy of good reporters. I can't imagine how much money France 2 has spent defending this case. Charles Enderlin is an excellent journalist! I don't care if it's the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles simply doesn't make a story up."

But, I tried to interject, the absence of the boy's "agony" from the tape?-

"Nonsense! Televisions don't show extreme violence. You know that. Look, I don't know what side you're on in this?"

"I'm trying to make sense of it all."

"I want you to call my friend at NPR, Loren Jenkins; call David Greenway at the Boston Globe; they'll tell you about pressure groups."

That was a different story; I had no time left and didn't call.

Similarly, there was the seasoned reporter from Le Figaro who thought Charles Enderlin, quite simply, was the best reporter operating in the Near East today. "These people, the ones attacking him, they're extreme rightists, yes? You can't take anything they say seriously." I conceded that the hoax wasn't proven, but that the shots had in all likelihood come from the Palestinian side. Esther Schapira  . . .  There was a sniff. "Pas très sérieuse, non?"

"Well, actually," I said, Schapira had just received the 2007 Europa Prize for her documentary on the murder of Theo van Gogh and been nominated for the 2008 Banff Television Awards. There was a small noise of well-bred surprise. All the same, nothing he'd heard until now had remotely convinced him or was likely to change his mind.

Then there was someone who insisted so vehemently on not being quoted or described in any way that I won't even reveal this person's sex. "Look, this whole thing has been a nightmare for Charles. He's received hate mail, his wife has been threatened, he's about to have a nervous breakdown. You want the truth? I don't give a flying monkey about the case. I signed for Charles. In all honesty, I think he edited his film on deadline and was careless, and afterwards he didn't want to admit he'd screwed up. A one-minute film, and it snowballed from there. Don't put in anything that might identify me, I don't want him to think I don't believe 100 percent in what he says, he'd be devastated."

This, at least, was bluntly honest. Jean-Yves Camus, the political scientist and expert on radical Islam, with whom I'd worked at, was another unrepentant signatory, one who didn't mind being quoted. "Do I think Charles Enderlin lost a good opportunity to own up to a mistake early in the day, and spare himself this anguish? Of course. You know how we work in a hurry? Guy sends him pictures from Gaza, tells him the Israelis shot the kid, he believes him-I mean, even the Israeli Defense Forces spokesman believed it! But you can't own up one, two years after the fact. It's too late, it would mean you abdicate. It's a nice job Charles has, he's nearing retirement age. I don't think he wanted to rock the boat. You know Charles, he's always been status-conscious; he likes being the France 2 man in Israel. Plus, these people behind their computers, they're not real journalists, are they? You can't come from your day job and blog at night and imagine you've become a reporter. It doesn't don't work like that. There are standards."

Still, I asked, why sign a text adamantly asserting the dangerous notion that Muhammad al-Dura had been shot by the Israelis if you don't believe it?

"I was asked to. It was to support Charles. Did you know his wife is Danielle Kriegel? Daughter of Annie Kriegel [a great anti-Communist academic, now dead], sister of Blandine [a philosopher and a former Chirac aide at the Elysée palace], sister-in-law of Alexandre Adler [Blandine's husband, who writes about geostrategy and politics in most French quality newspapers, perennial guest on highbrow talk-shows]."

With all those credentials, the cloud of respectability surrounding Charles Enderlin was reaching pea-soup opacity. I tried one last time.

"Couldn't you have asked for the wording of the petition to be amended? Or started your own petition?" It would have been, Camus told me in the tone of someone who had too much on his plate to busy himself with ancillary details, "too complicated." We made a date for lunch two weeks hence and hung up.

At the other end of the scale, there was the rather intimidating star lawyer Theo Klein, getting on in years, who 20 years ago had been the president of CRIF, the official umbrella representative body of French Jews. I called him and reminded him that he'd been kind enough to invite me to his 1989 French Revolution Bicentennial party. (His office was on the Champs-Elysées, and it was the dream vantage point from which to watch the Jean-Paul Goude-designed parade and listen to Jessye Norman, draped in a giant French flag, belting out the "Marseillaise.") Theo Klein took my call pleasantly and dove into the thick of the matter.

"Well, perhaps the bullets were not Israeli after all, but if something was set up, I'm sure Charles had nothing to do with it. He is a remarkable journalist. I respect him, and I'm sure this matters more than whether a bullet came from the right or from the left. After all, many Palestinian children have been killed in the Intifada. You know, the Israelis haven't made half the noise about this that some French Jews have." He was outraged, outraged by the court ruling.

The daughter and granddaughter of lawyers myself, I gently reminded him that it wasn't done in France to criticize a court ruling. He changed the subject as if stung. "Really, I find deplorable that people are hounding Charles Enderlin like that. He has suffered, really suffered. And his poor wife.  .  .  .  They wanted to emigrate to America at one stage, do you realize?"

Well, I suggested, Americans were actually rather big on correcting reporters' mistakes.

"Surely not after so much time?"

Even after a long time. Corrections were duly appended to stories on the websites of newspapers, to prevent the eternal metastasizing of factual errors. Maître Klein marvelled for a moment at such thoroughness. It seemed, I could tell, a little pointless to him: He, like almost everyone else I'd spoken to, rated facts far below reputation. Still, I decided to go over that ground one last time. Wasn't there some doubt about the actual fatal shot? Why sign this text?

"My dear," Theo Klein said, in an infinitely weary voice, "I'm not a journalist. I haven't read this petition. I have macular retina degeneration. I can no longer read."

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Friday, July 4, 2008

A YouTube president is what the EU deserves

Sarkozy might make a spectacle of himself, but he is also good at telling it straight, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Nicolas Sarkozy
It says a lot about Nicolas Sarkozy's confrontational style that even a decision as seemingly innocuous as lighting up the Eiffel Tower in blue, to celebrate the beginning of France's six-month EU presidency, gave rise to a controversy in Paris, with the city's popular mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, walking out in a huff from the ceremony on Monday night. ("It's only Sarkozy who has this effect on people," Delanoë aides hissed.)

Whatever Sarkozy turns his attention to is guaranteed to heat up fast.

It served him well during his triumphant election campaign last year, and it has helped unblock France's notoriously hidebound society on more than one occasion, from finessing through supposedly impossible pensions reform, to shepherding the country back into Nato to nary a bleat from the sentimental Gaullist cohorts.

Sarko managed to clinch the liberation of eight Bulgarian nurses from Libya, and rammed through the Lisbon "mini-treaty" - by the sleight of hand of selling it as most emphatically not the EU Constitution the country had previously voted "No" to.

In each case, bruised egos were seen as the unavoidable, but not terribly high, price to pay for brute efficiency from the newest kid on the block.

Though the style of the "hyper-president" has started grating in France, it still affords us some splendid spectacles, from Sarko's speed divorcing, dating and remarrying, to his expletive-laden spat with a member of the public at an agriculture fair, naturally caught on camera. (With his seeming incapacity to stand still, nervous tics, mobile eyebrows, waving hands, idiosyncratic grammar and BlackBerry habit, Sarkozy has done more than anyone for YouTube in France.)

But what will his erratic style mean for Europe - and Britain - now that France's agitated leader finds himself steering the EU for the next six months?

Although the job is less than it sounds (the rotating presiding country still holds no sway over the Commission, for instance), it still ensures great influence.

Sarko has already announced his aims, from lowering VAT on a number of areas including clean energy sources (not a favourite with Chancellor Merkel) to a moratorium on European Central Bank interest-rate hikes (ditto).

And then everything started going pear-shaped: the Irish "No"; Polish President Lech Kaczynski's refusal to ratify the Lisbon treaty; a gusty free-for-all with Peter Mandelson (who amazingly didn't find the time in his tight schedule to attend yesterday's EU presidency opening ceremony in Paris); a deadly shooting incident during a public army exercise in Carcassonne, leading to the very public resignation of the French army chief of staff; and finally, yet another of Sarko's YouTube hits - bootlegged footage showed him in manic form just before a television interview on Monday night, nearly blowing his top with the sound technician who hadn't answered his greeting, then threatening "changes" because he'd been met by a demonstration on the way to the studio.

But consider: letting loose the Amazing Exploding President on Europe might be just what that ponderous machine needs.

Sarko has been known to express frustration at the EU's apparent inability to listen to its citizens, and speak of the Commission's "autism".

Lost in the noise of his broadside against Mr Mandelson, Sarkozy said, for instance, of the Irish No vote, that "the Irish shouldn't be asked to vote again on the treaty - it would look as if we were trying to ram it through against their will".

Such niceties seem unknown among José Manuel Barroso and his colleagues.

He is also committed to the new French-British alliance, partly because Britain is the only real partner, in terms of military power, to advance European defence, which is foremost in his interests; and partly because he and Angela Merkel simply can't stand one another, personally and politically.

But no one in Paris would hazard a guess as to what will happen when Sarko the irresistible force meets the unmovable European object over the next six months.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

Quelle Horreur!

Eurovision and other insults to French culture.

It is difficult to overstate the weird, galactic silliness of the 52-year-old Eurovision Song Contest, which wrapped up on May 24 in Belgrade. Every spring, Eurovision fever seizes European countries, culminating in a televised finale that demolishes any tastelessness standards set by, say, American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. (That installment with Paul McCartney's tangoing one-legged estranged wife comes close.) But this year's Eurovision had all of France up in arms: Our competing entry was sung--quelle horreur--in English! Never mind that over half this year's contestants (including the Dane, the Germans, the Latvians, the Pole, the Swede, the Ukrainian, and more) also chose to sing in the language of rock music, la langue du rock. Cultural politics being what it is in France, cabinet ministers' heads may roll.

After a three-and-a-half-hour TV marathon in Belgrade (which, by contract, none of the rebroadcasters may cut), the cute half-clad Russian, Dima Bilan, singing in English, won. On the face of it, he had all the makings of a Europop star (including killer hipbones), but his victory really had nothing to do with the judges' assessment of his talent. In recent years, Eurovision has become ridiculously political--it's bloc voting, with every Scandinavian nation voting for all the other Scandinavians; the former Warsaw Pact countries hanging together; and places like Ukraine, Moldova, and Estonia aligning themselves according to the pipeline that brings them oil and gas. (Seriously. Ukraine voted oil-geographically, putting Russia first, Azerbaijan second, and Georgia third.)

You'd think the non-Scandinavian Western Europeans would realize they have no ghost of a chance any longer, but they still ostensibly believe in playing fair. The two French commentators--who included designer to the stars Jean-Paul Gaultier, the man who made a name for himself putting Madonna in a conical bra--mentioned none of this in their saccharine remarks, but veteran BBC commentator Terry Wogan (a kind of shaggy-haired Johnny Carson) made jokes and took potshots at everything, which apparently angered the Eurovision people enough that they complained to Wogan's bosses.

Dreamed up during a 1955 Monte Carlo junket by a bunch of Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union bureaucrats, both as a technical experiment in live broadcasting and a means to cheer up postwar Europe, the Eurovision Contest took off in the sixties and seventies, fostering the music style best known as Europop, which bears only a distant resemblance to the actual national music of the participating countries. In 1967, the year of the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper album, for instance, the (winning) British Eurovision entry was Sandie Shaw's "Puppet on a String." France's 1969 winner was Frida Boccara's "Un Jour, Un Enfant" in the very year when Serge Gainsbourg produced "Je t'Aime, Moi Non Plus" and Georges Moustaki sang "Le Métèque." (A cult Eurovision entry is Germany's 1979 disco "Dschinghis Khan," which only placed fourth but is one of YouTube's top-rated videos. It has it all--stiff, uncoordinated dance number in gold lamé, luxuriant mullets, relentless mechanical beat.)

Few Eurovision winners have managed to build any kind of career on their victory in the contest, the exception being the Swedish disco group ABBA in 1974. (Celine Dion, who confusingly competed for Switzerland in 1988 with an inoffensive French title, did win, but had to wait half a decade before achieving lasting fame in an entirely different style.) Yet its very dorkiness has given Euro-vision a new cool factor in recent years, hence the appearance of Jean-Paul Gaultier on the France 3 broadcast.

No matter: Participation in the contest is highly coveted by any young nation between Iceland and Azerbaijan (a new contestant in 2008). Israel has been a competitor since 1973 and won three times, the last in 1998 with an entry sung by a transsexual calling herself Dana International. For months now the Serbian press, highbrow and tabloid, has been heralding the contest--held in Belgrade because the Serbian entry won last year--as their country's final proof of rehabilitation after the Kosovo crisis.

You'd think more established nations, like, say, France and the United Kingdom (which, with Germany and Spain, are permanent members of Eurovision's own version of the Security Council, guaranteed a place in the finals by virtue of their major European broadcasting networks) would take things with a little more distance. You'd be wrong.

Irony was tried last year, and failed. There was an Israeli entry in French, English, and Hebrew called "Push Da Button" which was addressed to President Ahmadinejad of Iran; and a group of rednecks from northern France called Les Fatals Picards who overdid the hicks-from-the-sticks style with a song from an album called Pamplemousse Mécanique ("Clockwork Grapefruit"). Neither got anywhere. This year, possibly the best entry--Ireland's Dustin the Turkey, an engaging animatronic glove-puppet DJ-ing an electronic number with a lot more charm than his human competitors--was thrown out in the semi-finals (which prompted calls for sacking at the state-run Irish TV authority in the Eire Daily Mail).

And so France is abuzz with the scandale Sébastien Tellier. A protégé of the chart-topping duo Daft Punk, the hirsute and bearded Tellier, who was educated in one of France's most exclusive Catholic private schools, Saint Martin de Pontoise, sang in forgettable English a forgettable song called "Divine" (see it here, He was picked to compete at Eurovision by entertainment honchos at (state-run) France 3 during a live broadcast, prompting an angry outburst on the floor of the National Assembly by Gaullist member of parliament François Michel-Gonnot ("It's the first time in 52 years that such an outrage against French culture has been committed  .  .  . ").

Culture minister Christine Albanel soon came under fire. Albanel, a former Chirac speechwriter and a novelist, has quite a few enemies in her own party, who covet her plum job. Among them is Alain Joyandet, the junior minister for Francophonie, the Alliance of French-Speaking Countries, which France uses as its own little U.N. diplomatic pressure group (it was headed for a while by Boutros Boutros-Ghali). Joyandet read France 3 the riot act, then contacted the Eurovision Contest's executive producer, Svante Stockselius, to have the song altered. (Stockselius refused.) Tellier grudgingly added a couple of French lyrics to his song, but complained that it "didn't sound the same."

It brought back numerous earlier French tantrums, such as the reaction against the EuroDisney amusement park near Paris when it opened in 1992. A group of intellectuals led by the great theater director Ariane Mnouchkine called Euro-Disney a "cultural Chernobyl"--as if Notre Dame had been torn down and replaced by Sleeping Beauty's castle, instead of the whole thing being built in the middle of beetroot fields 35 miles from the Louvre. This sensitivity, you understand, springs from the duty of every French citizen to foster the "rayonnement de la culture française," an expression that has French culture radiating its beneficent influence like the sun.

All the same, there may be better ways to warm the planet's denizens by the glow of French culture than making French the compulsory language of all future entries in the Eurovision Contest. One came to mind recently as I searched the web.

I was looking for an electronic text of Balzac's great novel Les Illusions Perdues (1843) to send to a French-educated American friend. It soon became apparent that, while the most cursory of Google searches will produce three separate English translations (thank you Project Gutenberg and the University of Virginia) as well as versions in Italian and Russian, none was to be found in the original language. Further investigation failed to produce major French classics such as the plays of Molière, Racine, and Corneille (the 17th-century trio who collectively occupy in French letters a place roughly equivalent to Shakespeare's) except for a couple of plays on a provincial teacher's homepage and an archive in Quebec. It began to look as if French culture wasn't so terribly radiant after all.

As it happens, the Bibliothèque Nationale, French equivalent of the Library of Congress, now housed in a tall glass building on the Seine, was tasked by former president Chirac not long ago to provide an answer to Google Books's infernal gall. ("A commercial, American company, digitizing all books in existence? Even the French?" Chirac thundered, and promptly assigned a committee to counter this outrage.) Before that, Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale, mostly held facsimile copies of books, exactly reproducing the original pages, typeface, and so on, which were hugely unwieldy (10 to 80 megabytes) and unsearchable. But surely, I thought, by now Gallica would have Les Illusions Perdues.

After half an hour getting lost on Gallica's new site, I called the library's press office. A polite young man named Jean-Noël Orengo explained to me that digitizing books cannot be done "just like that," "on a massive scale," "helter-skelter" (oh the horrors perpetrated by Project Gutenberg's tens of thousands of cheerful volunteers who have entered over 40,000 titles into its free online collection!); it must be done "correctly." (Thus did the zealots of the Counter Reformation battle those Bible-obsessed militants raring to let just anyone read Scripture. It's not for nothing that France was, for a very long time, a Catholic country.) Monsieur Orengo said I should write to the communications director of the Bibliothèque Nationale if I wanted to find out more.

"But surely," I countered, "you can guide me through the website? I'm in front of a screen. You're in front of a screen. Can't we just find one book together?"

"I'm not an Internet specialist," admitted M. Orengo, getting more flustered by the minute. "But surely," I repeated, having fruitlessly waded through lists of electronic works ranked by date of digitization, "the point of a website is that it can be used by everybody?"

This was obviously a new and surprising notion to my guide. It turned out that we couldn't find "my" Balzac, however hard we tried. I suggested we open another window to Google, and type the first sentence of the book, in quotation marks. No dice. I tried the opening sentence of one literary work that does exist on the Gallica website in electronic form, Molière's sublime Tartuffe. ("Allons, Flipote, allons, que d'eux je me délivre.") Google doesn't link to it. "Ah," said M. Orengo, in the tone of someone revealing an important and necessary truth, "but all web search engines are Anglo-Saxon."

We eventually hung up, he worried that his boss would unfairly think he'd got the library bad press, me vowing that if it took me all night, I would find that book on the website of the French National Library.

I couldn't. Typing Illusions perdues in the Gallica jungle eventually produced the text of another Balzac novel, Ursule Mirouët. I would take that one at least, I decided, and clicked on the "download" link. This brought up a two-page questionnaire, demanding from me in addition to name and address a "customer number," a Value Added Tax affiliation number, a bank account number, and the soul of my first-born. (I made that last one up.) Feeling reckless, I clicked back, selected the entire text on my screen, and pasted it in a new Word document.

I now own the electronic text of a minor Balzac novel published 160 years ago, which I stole from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. That'll give me the odd frisson next time I leave the country. As for our Eurovision Song Contest entry, it came in 19th out of 25 finalists, which, while better than the three losers tied for 25th place (the U.K., Poland, and Germany), is nothing to write the Académie Française about.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sex, Nazis, and Videotape

The inestimable entertainment of the Max Mosley scandal.

It's the cup of tea that lifts the Max Mosley sex scandal from the tawdry to the Roald Dahl-esque.

"F1 boss Max Mosley has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers--Son of fascist Hitler lover in sex shame" blared the cover of the London News of the World tabloid, complete with a seven-page spread and a 90-second video--shot by a camera concealed in one of the girls' bra--on its website, the salient parts tactfully covered with a checkered racing flag. Unlike Eliot Spitzer's pedestrian misdeeds, where the most shocking part was the girl's inflated price tag, this one has everything. Whips, chains, Nazi uniforms, role-playing, five hookers in a Chelsea basement "dungeon" (at bargain basement prices, too; the total tab was a little under $5,000), and YouTube footage of the hanky-panky. And, in unique British style, after the floggings, spankings, German-language play-acting, and various activities, Mosley, who'd acted out both victim and guard, concluded his fantasy afternoon with the girls by sharing a cup of tea before shrugging himself back into his business suit--both the whipping bench and the restorative cuppa belong to the specific repertoire of the English sexual psyche.

What gave the whole story its unique, er, twist, is Mosley's background. He is the son of Britain's most notorious Fascist couple: Sir Oswald Mosley and his second wife, Diana. Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932 after an inspirational visit chez Mussolini, and became famous as a rabble-rousing orator and troublemaker, marching into the working-class East End Jewish neighborhoods with black-shirted, goose-stepping troops equipped with knuckle-dusters and truncheons.

A serial womanizer, the married Mosley had seduced the 22-year-old society beauty Diana Guinness, who left her brewery heir husband and two young sons to live openly as Mosley's mistress. Diana belonged to the glittering brood of aristocratic Bright Young Things, the six Mitford sisters, who together would span the entire spectrum of ideologies of the 20th century, from the Communist Jessica (who ran away from home to the Spanish Civil War) to the Nazi Unity (who was befriended by Hitler while in finishing-school at Munich and shot herself when war was declared). Diana sided with Unity and attended with her several Nazi party days at Nuremberg, making friends with assorted Third Reich luminaries, including Hitler, who took her to the Bayreuth festival. Mosley's first wife died of peritonitis, and, in 1936, he married Diana in the Goebbels' drawing room, with Hitler as best man.

The Mosleys were interned during World War II--by order of Diana's distant cousin, Winston Churchill. Max, the Mosleys' second son, born 11 weeks prior to his parents' arrest, spent the first three and a half years of his life with nannies and relations. After the war, his parents sent him to school in Ireland, France, and Germany to shield him from the opprobrium his name evoked. It's no wonder that Max, who after Oxford trained to become a lawyer, found the world of car racing liberating when he discovered it in the mid-1960s. "He encountered a world where his name meant nothing. Indeed, fellow entrants in club races assumed he was the son of coach builder Alf Mosley from Leicester," explains the motor racing correspondent Kevin Garside.

Mosley was neither a terribly successful driver, not even a first-rank team owner, but he came into his own working with his friend Bernie Ecclestone, the tycoon who now owns the Formula One commercial rights, particularly after he ousted the ageing Jean-Marie Balestre from the leadership of the sport's regulatory body in 1991. (Balestre himself had a colorful past: a former automotive journalist, he made much of his supposed wartime record with the French Resistance until pictures of him in Waffen SS uniform emerged. Somehow he still managed to get himself decorated with the Legion of Honor in 1979.)

Mosley and Ecclestone--who is Jewish and a major financial contributor to Tony Blair's New Labour, as is Mosley on a smaller scale--transformed Formula One into the global, multibillion-dollar business it has become today, imposing better safety rules and capping research spending to provide a level playing field. Mosley's abrupt style and limited tolerance for fools served him well in that world of larger-than-life performers, who live (and die) fast. "If Max was in bed with two hookers, they'd say 'good for you' or something like that," Ecclestone said when he learned of the latest affair. "Assuming it's all true, what people do privately is up to them. I don't honestly believe [it] affects the sport in any way. Knowing Max it might be all a bit of a joke. You know, it's one of those things where he's sort of taking the piss, rather than anything against Jewish people."

Ecclestone owes to Mosley what may be the most rewarding contract in the history of professional sports: a 100-year Formula One commercial rights exclusive, slated to run from 2010 to 2110, sanctioned by an unprecedented European Commission ruling after Mosley managed to persuade competition commissioner Mario Monti that it wasn't a monopoly. There was no tender, and Ecclestone was the lone bidder for the rights, for which he paid about $300 million. His companies are now valued 20 times that amount. Mosley feels there is no area of the sport he shouldn't concern himself with. Thus, last summer, was the Ferrari/McLaren industrial espionage criminal case, in which 800 pages of Ferrari's designs were stolen and used by McLaren-Mercedes's engineers. A criminal investigation being under way, he had no cause to intervene. Mosley nevertheless decided that the FIA--the International Automobile Association, which Mosley heads--should fine McLaren a record $100 million for "bringing the sport into disrepute." When a similar case arose with Renault (who had hired a design engineer from the McLaren stable who provided numerous engine and chassis diagrams), Mosley declined to fine them at all, contrasting Renault's "immediate contrition" with McLaren's "lies." To no one's great surprise, Mercedes was among the first to call for his resignation when the sex story broke in the News of the World, followed by BMW, then by Toyota and Honda.

Mosley, who only denies the Nazi angle of the whole episode (the rest, he says, is his private life), was swift to hit back. "Given the history of BMW and Mercedes Benz, particularly before and during the Second World War, I fully understand why they would wish to strongly distance themselves from what they rightly describe as the disgraceful content of these publications." He was certainly touching on a sensitive point--the Mosley scandal, while virtually ignored by the French press, has been playing in large spreads in German newspapers--but he was also indulging in German-baiting of the "Don't Mention the War" variety. Press coverage in England has been enormous--often driven by humorous headlines and wordplay. "How about a whip-round for Max's retirement?" asked a Daily Telegraph columnist.

So far, the Canadian, German, U.S., Dutch, and New Zealand motorists associations have called on him to go. (To date, only the United Arab Emirates motoring association have announced they support him.) Mosley has decided to stick it out to the end of his mandate in 2009 ("Triumph of the Wheel?" suggested the Times), but called an extraordinary FIA general assembly on June 3, at which the full membership--222 national motoring organizations from 130 countries--will take a secret-ballot vote of confidence. But is his position tenable until then?

His mother, who lived to the age of 93 in Paris, told interviewers to the end that she had been "terribly, terribly fond" of Hitler, and saw no point in dissembling. She might not have admired her son's tastes, according to her biographer Anne de Courcy, but she would certainly have admired his stubbornness.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Sarko Got His Groove Back

A triumphant 36 hours in Britain.

With Nicolas Sarkozy's precipitous slide in the polls finally reversed thanks to a carefully calibrated spin campaign and an unexpectedly successful state visit to Britain, there are long faces to be seen on the left--but even longer ones inside the president's own party.

Call the French inconsistent. They objected to their new president's perceived flaunting of his private life. But give him a picture-perfect trip to England, complete with horse-drawn carriage ride into Windsor next to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, gala evenings, a speech before the Houses of Parliament, and a new commitment to a French-British alliance equal to the French-German "axis" that for the past half-century has kept France in the leadership of Europe--and what do the French pick up on but the accolades bestowed by the British press on Sarkozy's new wife. "London falls for Carla--Carlamania seizes Britain!" goes the headline in Le Monde. "Carla steals the show," trumpets Libération. And that's only the supposedly "serious" (and usually anti-Sarkozy) left-wing press. It took a 36-hour visit, one night at Windsor Castle, and nine dress changes (all in demure but très chic Dior) for Sarko's poll numbers, which had dropped 30 points in three months, to finally inch back up, from 35 percent to 40 percent favorable, leaving him a bit of elbow-room to announce a series of cuts in welfare spending last Friday.

The week before last, everyone in France was dismissing Sarkozy as last year's wonder, a four-year lame-duck president who'd managed to squander a clear victory in record time. Worse, he'd managed to lose half a dozen large cities to the left in local elections on March 9 and 19--almost without help from the opposition Socialists. As France moves more and more into a two-party system (Sarkozy has destroyed Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front in a neat mirror-image of François Mitterrand's shrinking trick with the Communist party a quarter century ago), the Socialists still don't have a leader or a platform. Deciding on these--at their next national conference in November--promises a lively free-for-all, as former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal slugs it out with her archenemy, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë.

Unlike their German Social Democratic or British Labour counterparts, the French Socialists still haven't formally abandoned Marxism. If they do, they fear losing the votes of France's three (count 'em!) small Trotskyite parties preaching class struggle and antiglobalization. As a result, the Socialists' message is often distorted by the tension between ideology and realism. Meanwhile, they look less modern, less diverse, and older than Sarkozy's troops, which helps explain his victory last year. (It took Sarko to appoint blacks and Muslims to major cabinet positions and to insist on strict equality between the sexes in appointments ranging from cabinet jobs to the Legion of Honor.)

As Sarkozy seemed intent on an own-goal ignominious free fall, his real enemies started coming out of his own party's woodwork. They are the self-proclaimed Gaullists, to whom the new president's pro-Americanism is anathema, and the keenest of them all is a lanky figure well-known in Washington, Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister and prime minister of anti-Iraq war fame.

Villepin and Sarkozy hate each other's guts. It's political--they have different views of the world, and Sarkozy despises in Villepin the career bureaucrat who never ran for elective office--but also personal. Villepin, who for a good while toyed with the idea of running for president himself in 2007, has been indicted in the Clearstream scandal, a smear campaign in which Sarkozy's name (and others') were faked on a computer list purporting to show holders of illegal Luxembourg bank accounts. Around 2004-05, Villepin and, in all likelihood, President Jacques Chirac, allegedly hired through intermediaries a computer expert to produce the list, in a dirty-tricks bid to prevent Sarkozy from running for president. The chief intermediary was an officer in the French intelligence service, General Philippe Rondot, who found the task distasteful enough that he kept detailed notes in his office safe, to be produced if any of this leaked. It did.

It should probably be noted here that even if Villepin is found guilty and sentenced (in all likelihood to a fine and a suspended prison sentence), this will be no hindrance to his pursuing a political career. The bright line in France is personal pecuniary gain. Another former prime minister, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, was three years ago sentenced to a 14-month suspended prison term for financing the Gaullist party through City of Paris coffers. Since he did not help himself to a centime, he was reelected in Bordeaux in March with an even higher majority.

While Villepin is incensed that Sarko didn't lift a finger to slow down the judicial process against him (French judges are civil servants; it is not uncommon to convince them to slow a proceeding to a crawl), his official reason for opposing Sarkozy is that the president is betraying the "Gaullist legacy." One sure sign that Villepin intends to pursue an active political career, probably even run for president in 2012, is that he's recently registered with the Paris bar. He doesn't need the work--he is already getting both his prime minister's pension and an ambassador-at-large's salary from his civil service career--but as a lawyer, he can receive large fees from clients without having to disclose them. It is a known dodge in French political finance. Sarkozy himself was a barrister. So are Socialist chief François Hollande and his former partner Ségolène Royal, even though they're both (like Villepin, Chirac, and many more--but not Sarko) graduates of the illustrious Ecole Nationale d'Administration and therefore civil servants for life.

Until last week, Villepin and his bevy of anti-American, anti-EU, largely pro-Arab "historic Gaullists" were licking their chops at Sarko's fall from grace, punctuating the president's descent in the polls with snide attacks. "Europe has never had borders.  .  .  . Europe made concrete commitments vis-à-vis Turkey some decades ago and [those commitments] need to be honored," Villepin told students (and the local great and good) at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, in open criticism of Sarkozy's well-known refusal to let Turkey into the EU. "France has no call to reintegrate NATO," he thundered in an interview with the radio station Europe 1, just as Sarkozy prepared to announce exactly that at the Bucharest NATO summit. "I might very well run for election in France," he confided to La Tribune de Genève. "The government's message isn't clear enough," he sniped on public radio France-Info. Even when selling his collection of Napoleon memorabilia and papers (tellingly, through the auction house owned by a longtime Mitterrand acolyte, Pierre Bergé), Villepin seized the occasion to express his grave doubts about France sending more troops to Afghanistan "in the absence of clearly defined goals by the United States and NATO."

Sarkozy's reaction was typical: Just as, after winning the election last year, he brought half a dozen leftwingers into his cabinet, throwing the defeated Socialists into further disarray, last week he had two Villepin associates appointed to leadership posts within the UMP, the Gaullist party, one of them as vice secretary in charge of defense. Sarko believes that while Villepin stays out in the cold, he can whittle some of his troops away from him. It's a daring strategy, undertaken even before the poll numbers started to improve, but Sarkozy, who at 53 is two years younger than Villepin, has been in politics for twenty years longer. Villepin has written several admiring books about his hero, Napoleon, but it's Sarkozy who's got the true Bonaparte style.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Anyone who discounts Nicolas Sarkozy as a lame-duck president is missing the point

Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni
Entente cordiale: Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife, Carla Bruni, will be entertained at Windsor Castle

"Sarkozy sinks even further!" was the headline in Le Canard Enchaîné, France's Left-wing answer to Private Eye, as the French president launched a new nuclear submarine at Cherbourg last week.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is beginning a two-day state visit to Britain on Wednesday - three months before France assumes the European Union's rotating presidency - will arrive weighed down by a controversial image and baggage as heavy as the gold Rolex watch which he has only recently been persuaded to give up.

Fellow European leaders consider, with feelings ranging from fascination to dismay, his precipitous slide in the opinion polls of more than 30 points in less than three months; his party's poor performance in last week's local elections, and the cloud of high-octane gossip that has surrounded his very public divorce and his new marriage, to the model and singer Carla Bruni.

All those marital complications may sound horribly familiar to the Queen, of course, as the mother of three children who have divorced.

She will do the French president and the new Mrs Sarkozy what Élysée aides called the "rare honour" of accommodating them at Windsor Castle - not Buckingham Palace - on Wednesday. Mrs Sarkozy has rehearsed her curtsy, ready to "follow proper British protocol", French diplomatic advisers confirmed.

The Sarkozy visit is not just designed to make him look as lofty and presidential as polls at home suggest the French would like him to be. It is also aimed at producing some substantial diplomacy, drawing Britain into a more decisive role in Europe and as a supporter of France's return to Nato, four decades after General de Gaulle walked away from the Atlantic Alliance in a huff. If it happens to miff the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, after Berlin pulled the rug from under Mr Sarkozy's projected Mediterranean Union by voting against EU subsidies, so much the better.

For, almost obscured by the publicity and paparazzi pictures, is the fact that Mr Sarkozy has a long-matured plan of what he aims to achieve in France and abroad. "I've had 30 years to think of what I'm going to do," he told an interviewer shortly after his election last year.

He may have been surprised, and infuriated, by his loss of popularity; he thought he had been elected with a clear mandate to modernise France, and that the French wouldn't mind a younger look and style to go with it. (They did, terribly; they wanted a traditional figure who would adopt a grand bedside manner while applying the forceps.)

But anyone discounting Mr Sarkozy as a four-year lame-duck president, facing opprobrium at home and abroad just like America's George W Bush, is missing the point. Mr Sarkozy is no family heir comfortably groomed for power, no École Nationale d'Administration upper civil servant gone into politics with a safety net and a network of supercilious grad school friends.

His own father, a Hungarian refugee from communism, told him, before leaving the household for a peripatetic life full of pretty women, that "with a name like yours, you'll never make it in French politics".

Mr Sarkozy got his start at the grassroots, handing out leaflets and organising young Gaullists. He snatched the city hall at Neuilly aged 28, when his political mentor had to undergo a routine operation. He has always made enemies, and has often been unpopular.

In 1995, he briefly considered quitting politics, after he left Jacques Chirac's side to support his Right-wing rival Edouard Balladur's bid for the presidency, only to see Mr Balladur trounced by the more experienced Mr Chirac. At the time, newspaper cartoons showed Mr Sarkozy as a diminutive, cartoonish traitor, and it seemed his reputation could not recover. But it did, as he forged alliances, seized the Gaullist party from Mr Chirac's remote stewardship, and eventually defeated rivals to stand alone as the Right's presidential hopeful in the polls.

After the 2005 riots, when he was interior minister, the Left, attempting to whip up an "Anyone But Sarkozy" front, painted him as a quasi-fascist and racist. This doesn't work so well today, now that he has appointed six former Left-wingers to the most diverse cabinet in French history. Mr Sarkozy is no Margaret Thatcher. He is a man of conviction, but more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. Head-on conflict doesn't work with the French, so he would rather avoid it when possible.

He believes France will suffer fatally in the global competition stakes without reforms. But he wants to slide these past the unions by agreeing to any number of temporary sweeteners, so long as his real goals - structural reform of France's too-generous social and welfare net and of the health and state school services, plus lower tax on businesses and services - remain intact.

This strategy succeeded last November, when Mr Sarkozy defused a threatened transport strike while reaching an agreement on a common retirement age for public- and private-sector workers. And even as his party was dealt a resounding slap in last Sunday's local elections, an opinion poll found that two-thirds of voters want reforms to be implemented faster. Seated in their collective dentist's chair, the French seemed to beg for the drill - and for the whole thing to be over with already.

Mr Sarkozy has now announced that he will increase the pace of reforms, to derisive comments from the Left. He can, however, brush these aside because at national level he has only a divided opposition with which to contend.

The recent "bling-bling" anti-Sarkozy campaign was waged on style, not substance, precisely because the Socialist party is still split between two leadership contenders (Ségolène Royal, whom Mr Sarkozy beat to become president, and Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris), has no platform, and can't manage to make peace with the Greens and three small Trotskyite parties whose votes it crucially needs.

The president's real opponents are within his own party, where the old anti-Atlanticist Gaullists, horrified by what they see as a betrayal of France's non-aligned tradition, are hoping that a challenger will emerge to stand against him for the Gaullist candidacy in the 2012 presidential election.

One such might be Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux and a former prime minister; another possibility is the former foreign secretary and prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. But Mr Sarkozy's bet is that he has more political experience, and more experience of life's reversals, than any of his rivals.

Watch him this week as he proclaims a "new fraternity" between France and Britain, in a carefully honed speech to both Houses of Parliament. He has been knocked down before, but never out.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008