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

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