Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Calm down, mes amis, it's only a treaty

While proposed joint military action between British and French forces has been greeted with harrumphing on this side of the Channel, in Paris there has been only shrugging, laced with smug satisfaction, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

2:38AM GMT 03 Nov 2010


If proof were still needed of the essential asymmetry in French-British relations, you need only compare reactions on either side of the Channel to the Sarkozy-Cameron agreement, which proposes that the French and the British military co‑operate to form a joint expeditionary force. Beneath the diplomatic veneer, les Anglais are up in arms: the names Napoleon, Pétain, Exocet and Jacques Chirac are fiercely lobbed about.

To sum it up, the French are unreliable, devious, and let others actually win their wars for them, while making a lot of noise on the sidelines. And that’s only in the last century or so; before that, they were the Hereditary Enemy.

Meanwhile, we French, frankly, couldn’t be less bovvered. It’s a clear case of “you obsess about us; we hardly think about you”. Yes, of course, you can find historians and admirals to recall the infamous Mers-el-Kebir incident, when, on July 3, 1940, most of the French fleet was sunk by the British Navy rather than run the risk of seeing it join Nazi forces, at the cost of 1,297 French lives.

In a typical instance of mutual incomprehension, easily recognisable to this day to everyone who has ever worked in any kind of French-British corporate situation, the British ultimatum asking the French fleet commander, Admiral Marcel Gensoul, to surrender the ships under his command to Allied control for the duration of hostilities was delivered not by his hierarchical counterpart, Admiral James Somerville, but by Somerville’s best French-speaking officer, a Captain Cedric Holland.

English pragmatism predictably came up against the touchy French sense of precedence: Gensoul deemed himself insulted to be sent a subaltern, and delegated a junior lieutenant in his place. The resulting confusion was ended by Somerville’s fleet guns.

And while we, of course, always enjoy a bit of Rosbif-bashing – no, you have not been forgiven for Joan of Arc, or Trafalgar, or Waterloo (the gall of housing the first Eurostar terminal in its namesake train station!), or for Mrs Thatcher’s European contribution rebate – the truth is that we’ve spared next to no front-page headlines for the Traité de Défense Commune. We’re more interested in the US mid-term elections, and the announced defeat of this nice Monsieur Obama; or in the new terrorist threats; and naturally in the tail-end of the strikes against pension reform.

Yesterday’s military agreement is seen as a reasonable compromise for the sake of necessary budget cuts, in a country where “austerity” is political poison, and the population has only recently shown how it responds to calls for fiscal sacrifices. Whatever savings are made here will at least not involve our tax bills.

To be fair, there is also a not inconsiderable feeling here that France is gaining from today’s agreement. Perhaps it’s the kind of smugness that comes from providing most of the running water in the UK, a sizeable part of your electricity, and running hourly a high-speed train to Paris that shows your rail companies how Things Are Done. We sense that when Britain sacrifices perhaps the most original post-war aeroplane technology, the VTOL Harrier jet, for the sake of landing on our benighted excuse for an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, a lemon that has spent more time in dry dock being fixed than on the high seas, Sarkozy must have pulled a fast one indeed.

There is also the simple reality that the French and the British regard their national military symbols in very different ways. To you, the Royal Navy is the Senior Service. A major naval history of Britain, such as N. A. M. Rodger’s superb endeavour, amounts pretty much to a history of your country. But the French navy, while respected, is by contrast peripheral enough to our national debate that it can get away, to this day and after two Revolutions, with the familiar name of La Royale (as in La Marine Royale.) What we’ve always believed in is might, Realpolitik, and prestige. This, as De Gaulle impressed on us, spells nuclear power, military and civilian.

“The French have become pragmatic, less history-obsessed,” explains the affable Dominique Moïsi, France’s leading geostrategy expert, chief adviser of the IFRI think tank, and a member of the Bilderberg Conference.

“We realise that David Cameron is completely committed to deficit reduction, so that it is not unthinkable that France would find herself the single nuclear power in Europe. That would make for a very uncomfortable position, under pressure from Germany, for instance, to give up on our nuclear deterrent.

“But if France and Britain share the costs of nuclear defence, then the whole concept is preserved. This is well worth an amount of compromise.”

Left unsaid are the potential gains for the French civilian nuclear industry, a direct inheritor of our Fifties and Sixties military programmes, which today produces 80 per cent of French electricity. In times where CO₂ is seen as more dangerous than depleted uranium, French nuclear technology has benefited from a broad national consensus that it was a Good Thing: “Le nucléaire, non, merci!” bumper stickers never caught on in France.

But perhaps such cynicism is uncalled for. At any rate, everyone in Paris officialdom is on message. Ministère de la Défense and Elysée flacks have been briefing assiduously on how complementary the French and British military are. Both armies deploy about the same numbers overseas – some 15,000 men – but in different theatres; the French mostly active in western and central Africa, while until recently the thrust of British military action lay in Iraq, and still does in Afghanistan.

The French-British Rapid Reaction Force is also welcome in French military circles, where the demise of the short-lived FAR, la Force d’Action Rapide, has been mourned. There is little bad history between French and British Special Forces, who share a healthy, mutual admiration for each other. The SAS have seen the French “Marsouins” (the nickname for the Commandos de Marine) at work, most recently in Afghanistan, “in situations where you mostly needed a parachute, night goggles, and a serviceable knife”, in the words of one Marsouin colonel, and were reportedly impressed.

One of France’s eldest special forces veterans, 92-year-old Brigadier Paul Aussaresses, active in the Jedburgh teams between June and December 1944, when the Resistance co-operated with Allied forces on guerrilla operations, recalled yesterday for the Telegraph his training and operation days with British commandos. “You could absolutely rely on them,” he said. “They were fantastic fighters, and they had your back. It’s good to know we’ll be fighting together again, French and English.”

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nobody expected this French revolution

The pensions row has turned into a referendum on Sarkozy, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

Riot police officers move back from a burning truck during clashes with youths in Lyon; Nobody expected this French revolution; AP
Riot police officers during clashes with youths in Lyon Photo: AP

As the French Autumn of Discontent morphs into its second week (more trains, fewer planes, long lines at petrol stations, banlieues kids indulging in a bit of self-administered wealth redistribution in the streets), no one can predict how things will turn out for Nicolas Sarkozy and his embattled government. And yet this should have been the easiest reform of his first term.

The government was looking to score points for realism and for shoring up the pay-as-you-go pensions system. Instead, they have boxed themselves into the kind of standoff the French always used to call, scathingly, la politique à la Thatcher.

The Socialist opposition, hoping to energise grassroots support for their 2012 presidential campaign, encouraged their natural constituents, the teachers' and students' unions, to stoke up anti-Sarkozy resentment in schools and universities. Now they find themselves watching in dismay as the student revolt spirals out of control. If there is a single fatality in these heated confrontations, they will be branded irresponsible, and the same parents who encouraged their children to demonstrate will withdraw every ounce of goodwill and support.

Both sides were taken by surprise. Over the past months, in negotiations quietly undertaken at the Elysée Palace, union leaders had indicated that they understood the pensions quandary. On paper, simple arithmetic sums it up: in 1945, when the scheme was established, eight workers paid for the pension of one retiree. By 1960, they were down to four. Today, it's 1.8, and if nothing changes, in 15 years' time, 1.2 French workers will bear the burden of one pensioner.

The unions were prepared for the usual French face-saving social kabuki: after some pre-planned tactical retreats, a bit of symbolic give and take on implementation, a few exceptions made for women and manual labourers, the bill would have been accepted. Instead, they have been pushed into a hard line stance by their members. The CGT union's Charles Foulard, the oil-and-gas industries' answer to Arthur Scargill, is leading the blockage of Total's oil refineries; he's constantly on radio and television exclaiming that reform is unfair because the French have it too hard already.

One of the great no-nos in France is criticising the right to strike. Worker solidarity is professed with Young Pioneer unanimity. You can complain about anything else – but there's a logical disconnect that obtains before you can suggest that the three hours you spent commuting home, packed into the train like a sardine, are actually due to the collective irresponsibility of unsackable public sector workers. And so what is emerging is a kind of surly Gallic Blitz spirit, with morning radio news giving tips on petrol stations still open, and the SNCF iPhone app showing cancelled trains in real time.

Politicians always learn too late, to their cost, that perception is reality. By all practical measures, we French actually live a pretty good life. The social welfare system works, with generous unemployment benefits and tax rebates; the national health system is the one thing no French citizen complains about (this translates into Europe's longest life expectancy and the World Health Organisation's highest score); and public infrastructure spending ensures good services even in problem areas. This we take for granted.

All the same, the strikes have turned into a referendum on Nicolas Sarkozy – not his actual policies, so much as his style. The perception is that he panders to the rich, an unfair one when you consider his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who never paid for any holiday he took in or out of office (Chirac still relies on an array of benefactors, from luxury goods tycoon François Pinault, to the family of the late Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, who pay for his splendid flat by the Louvre).

Sarkozy (whose fortune is the product of selling his family flat for £1.6 million when he was elected in 2007) earned himself, early on, the "bling bling president" tag. Nothing he has done since has shifted the impression that he wants the French to make efforts he will not subject himself and his rich friends to.

The fact is, if the pensions reform fails (for now, the government intends to stand firm, and a parliament vote is expected next week), it won't have been seen off by the unions, but by the Bettencourt scandal. The fight between the l'Oréal heiress and her daughter uncovered casual tax evasion on a large scale, and illegal contributions made to Sarkozy's presidential campaign. The sheer amounts quoted as the saga unfolded – a Seychelles island here, pictures by Matisse and Picasso there – awakened revolutionary feelings not felt in two and a half centuries. Against the spirit of Robespierre, no amount of reason can prevail.

The only hope for the government is an especially French one: at the end of next week, All Saint's Day marks the start of the half-term holidays. It is expected that most young demonstrators will choose to break their revolt to go and enjoy that other French inalienable right, and the fires will dwindle and die.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Would the real Carla Bruni please step forward? Rival biographies sow confusion over the first lady of France

Rival biographies of Carla Bruni raise the question of which image of Nicolas Sarkozy's wife is correct - and what kind of influence she is on the French president.

Would the real Carla Bruni please step forward? Rival biographies sow confusion
Would the real Carla Bruni please step forward? Rival biographies sow confusion over the first lady of France Photo: AFP

It says much about Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, her complicated relationship with her husband, the French political world at large, and her personal sense of self that of her two biographies published last week, the one with which she co-operated paints the less flattering portrait.

According to Carla et les Ambitieux, a gossipy but well-documented tome by two journalists who have previously produced best-selling instant biographies of Cecilia Sarkozy and Rachida Dati, France's first lady regularly overrules her husband's chief foreign policy adviser, an experienced diplomat whom she tried to have fired.

She obtained police and secret service files in order to finger the source of rumours on her and her husband's alleged infidelities; she disclosed an embarrassing private conversation with Michelle Obama in which the American president's wife allegedly confessed to hating life in the White House; and she believed herself the victim of a conspiracy between former justice minister Dati, Sarkozy's brother's ex-wife, and a mysterious "mage" to spread slander about her private life.

She also, the book says, reorganises her husband's schedule at the last minute if she thinks puts too great a burden on him, no matter how much work was involved in arranging it or how many people will be stood up as a result.

And that's the good news.

While she sat for several lengthy interviews with Michael Darmon and Yves Derai, the authors of the first book, Bruni not only refused to grant access to Besma Lahouri, a sometime Zinedine Zidane biographer who wrote Carla, une Vie Secrète; she also discouraged aides and friends from having anything to do with the author.

Yet many of Lahouri's "revelations" and "insights" paint a picture of a self-possessed and intelligent woman, hard-working and dedicated, whose success in her chosen professions – modelling and singing – was achieved by dint of clearly thinking through her objectives, and how best to achieve them.

We learn from former colleagues, photographers, fashion editors and agents that from the tender age of 16, when she started on the catwalks, Bruni was unfailingly punctual, polite, and considerate to stars and humblest staffers alike.

She never threw a strop or complained about endless waiting times ("so unlike Naomi Campbell", says a former editor of ELLE); she never stopped taking singing lessons, requesting blunt criticism from the composers and songwriters with whom she worked; and she did not hesitate humbly to petition for work with those stars whom she admired, yet who seemed at first to be unaware of her existence, from Christian Lacroix, the couturier, to Jean-Jacques Goldman, the musician.

In general, she could have taught Alan Sugar a thing or two about hard-earned success.

Lahouri tells us that Bruni went after the men in her life, whether Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger or Nicolas Sarkozy, with the same intelligent determination.

Again, this is the stuff of self-improving Cosmopolitan and Marie-Claire features: all that's missing from the story of how she inserted herself into Clapton's life, then hopped into the arms (and bed) of Jagger are a few bullet points and a pop quiz.

"You have a ticket to a concert by a top musician whose best friend is the rock star you've worshipped since you were 12. Do you a) stay in your assigned seat; b) work your way across the mosh pit to the front row, hoping to be noticed; c) immediately score an invitation to visit backstage; or d) ditch the first musician for the even bigger rock star as soon as possible? Give yourself a pat on the back if you've answered b, c and d." (Half the nation sighs wistfully.)

Well, wouldn't we all, if we could?

The difference being that Bruni manages to remain good friends with all her exes. Lahouri describes amusing summer holidays in the Bruni family's elegant Riviera house, where an easy-going Sarkozy jogs with one of his wife's former lovers, bikes with another and plays cards with a third. Then everyone meets for long dinners in the Mediterranean evenings, punctuated by the sounds of the sea and the cicadas in the garden.

Ditto with allegations that she repeatedly underwent plastic surgery. None of that is new, mind you: after Bruni, at a chic house party in Marrakesh 10 years ago, "stole" the glamorous philosopher Raphaël Enthoven from under the nose of his young wife Justine Lévy, the wronged wife retaliated by writing a transparent roman à clef. A character obviously modelled on France's future first lady was described as "the bionic woman", "sewn up and Botoxed to complete facial rigor."

Ms Bruni now denies ever going under any kind of knife; Lahouri, however, has dug up early employers as well as former model colleagues who have a different story, sometimes with telling snapshots.

Yet who would today criticise surgical improvement, or condemn out of hand someone who chooses to lie about it? On a scale of sins surely this ranks well below wearing high heels when your husband is four inches shorter than you.

Carla et les Ambitieux, written by two Elysée correspondents, Michaël Darmon and Yves Derai, purports to be a far more political book. Bruni went out of her way to help the writers, no doubt because of their earlier hatchet jobs on both Rachida Dati and Sarkozy's previous wife, Cecilia.

In addition to Bruni, her aides and friends also spoke to the authors at length, so there can be little doubt of the accuracy of the anecdotes quoted. In the incestuous world of the French media, where most politicians, bosses and celebrities ask and get to read their interviews before publication, it is very likely that Bruni also saw significant excerpts of the manuscript before the book went to press.

That she (and, presumably, her husband too) apparently never imagined the result might come back and bite her says a lot about the peculiar deafness which develops after a couple of years in power.

Perhaps in belated response, the Elysée Palace last week declared that Bruni had not in any way "authorised" the book.

Bruni comes across as a political animal of a well-known French persuasion, the luvvie-intellectual who's never seen a liberal piety she doesn't approve of, or failed to take a woolly stand comforted by the approval of the chattering classes.

An unthinking left-winger all her life ("I'm not sure about Ségolène Royal, but I'd vote for her if I were French because my family have always voted on the left," she memorably said just before the 2007 presidential election, before Sarkozy had appeared on her personal horizon), she has pushed her husband into making a couple of costly political mistakes.

One was picking Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of the former president, to become the minister of culture. A sensitive, clever man with a genuine talent as a writer, film-maker and broadcaster, Mitterrand would indeed have been a good bi-partisan choice – except that he had admitted in his best-selling autobiography, which Bruni had read and given her husband to read, to a taste for gay sexual tourism in Thailand.

When the inevitable political fracas ensued, Bruni lobbied hard for Mitterrand to keep his job, which he did – something for which Sarkozy's core voters never forgave him. (It didn't help when Mitterrand then supported Roman Polanski against the US Department of Justice.)

Similarly, in her eagerness to score points over Sarkozy's second wife Cecilia, Bruni made a point of becoming friends with his first wife, Marie-Dominique Culioli, with whom he'd had his two elder sons. This played a significant part when Sarkozy decided to push his 23-year-old son Jean, a law student with not a single diploma to his name, as candidate to head the development council for the La Défense business district west of Paris, the largest and most emblematic in France.

His move was seen as blatant nepotism, and the scandal lasted far too long since the president refused for weeks to back down.

Finally the younger Sarkozy himself withdrew, making an elegant public statement and prime time television interview which justified some of his father's confidence in him. But by then the president had been significantly and lastingly harmed.

Because Carla Bruni-Sarkozy comes from old money, and has been keen to tutor her husband away from his much-decried early fondness for bling-bling – making him switch his Rolex watch for a more subdued Patek Philippe, and his Ray-Ban Aviators for tamer eye wear, for instance – many in France still think she is a good influence on him.

A poll last week found that 54 per cent of voters like her, and 71 per cent believe she helps France's image abroad. So far, most do not think she has any political influence on her husband; of the minority who think otherwise, 17 per cent believe it's a positive one while 10 per cent think the opposite.

But her latest spin effort may very well change this perception. Her "great friend" Michelle Obama has just discovered that luxury holidays abroad can earn you a costly "Michelle-Antoinette" nickname. Yet the French revolutionaries resented the Austrian queen's political influence far more than her spending.

The authorised biography reveals, indisputably, that Bruni has an appetite for political meddling - so will its publication trigger a sudden revulsion, if not a revolution, against France's Carla-Antoinette?

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The L'Oreal heiress and a picture of rudeness

François-Marie Banier's enemies will be watching the novelist's difficulties with glee, writes Anne Elisabeth Moutet.
Published: 5:27PM BST 16 Jul 2010
Francois-Marie Banier arrives in court for L'Oreal fraud trial
Francois-Marie Banier arrives in court for L'Oreal fraud trial Photo: Rex Features

By the time most of you read this on Saturday, François-Marie Banier, the society photographer and novelist, will have been grilled for 48 hours solid by the French police, without the benefit of a lawyer. They want to know, among other things, whether he evaded tax by hiding, through a Liechtenstein trust, the gift of a Seychelles island (estimated at 500 million euros) from the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

The procedure is known as garde à vue, and it's as unpleasant as it sounds (France is regularly taken to task about it by the European Court of Human Rights, and regularly blows, in answer, an elegantly argued raspberry in Strasbourg's general direction).

But a number of people must be watching the proceedings with unmitigated glee. There's Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, the heiress's only daughter, who started the whole thing three years ago when she felt her mother was being estranged from her by the entourage.

Many members of Liliane Bettencourt's staff actively loathed Banier, not least because he was extremely rude to them. He would call before taking Liliane out, one of them told the police, reminding them "to make sure she had her chequebook with her".

But there are also family members of the many prominent elderly ladies (and a few gentlemen) he paid court to in the past decades, who tell surprisingly similar tales of suddenly not being able to visit or telephone them, of works of art suddenly vanishing from a wall or a chimneypiece, of property in prime locations – a studio near Paris's delightful Place de Fürstenberg, a flat on rue Servandoni – being gifted or sold at peppercorn prices to the enterprising artist.

Frédéric, the grandson of interior designer Madeleine Castaing, a kind of French Elsie de Wolfe, recalls appropriations physical and moral – beyond the Chaim Soutine pictures and Cocteau and Picasso autograph letters and the rue Visconti flat, what galled him most was a black and white photograph taken by Banier of his grandmother, aged 95, dishevelled in a nightgown and without her trademark wig, which ended up in various retrospectives across Europe's museums. Banier could become rough when refused a prized possession, Frédéric Castaing told the police. "He shouted at her and once urinated in her teacups, in front of her staff ".

Banier, it is said, learned his shocking rudeness from Salvador Dali. The great Surrealist painter would receive him, still in his teens, in his suite at the Meurice hotel, and graphically comment on the supposed physical attributes of the waiters serving them tea. "Banier wants to shock, he only manages to be embarrassing," wrote Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's longtime partner, after a 10-day holiday in Toulon. Still, Banier managed to get Princess Caroline of Monaco to pose for him with her head shaved, and the notoriously skittish Isabelle Adjani to make monkey faces to his camera. More recently, he has photographed, and made friends of, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Caroline's daughter Charlotte Casiraghi.

You have to admire his aplomb. Visiting a gallery with Liliane Bettencourt, he freezes in front of a picture. "The colour of our friendship is the precise blue of this Matisse," he exclaims. On cue, the billionaire heiress replies, "François-Marie, this picture is yours."

This week, just before he was taken for questioning, Banier gave a long interview to L'Express, shooting salvoes at his detractors. "Of course I can't influence Liliane Bettencourt," he protested. "I advised her to buy Cheval Blanc, the Premier Cru vineyard; Ilford, the British photographic company; [the ailing daily] Libération; a museum; a skyscraper for L'Oréal's new headquarters. She did none of it. How can anyone possibly think I manipulate her?"

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nicolas Sarkozy scandal goes back to Hungarian roots

The case of L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, has enraptured France and forced Nicolas Sarkozy into the spotlight. By Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris.
Francois-Marie Banier and Liliane Bettencourt
French photographer and author Francois-Marie Banier explaining his works to Liliane Bettencourt (L) at Hans Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany Photo: EPA

Before becoming a scandal about money, politics, art, history, café society and power, the Affaire Bettencourt, now threatening the Sarkozy presidency, is the story of two ferociously ambitious young Hungarian outsiders and their success at storming the citadels of the French establishment.

One, Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a womanising émigré aristocrat and a doctor's daughter, used to be told by his (twice) remarried father on visiting Sundays that he would never amount to anything much in France, because of his foreign name, small stature and below-average school grades.

The other, François-Marie Banier, né Banyiaï, was regularly beaten by his Renault migrant worker turned ad-man father for being a dilettante, an aesthete, and a high-school drop-out. (By coincidence Pál Sarkozy, Nicolas's father, also dabbled in advertising for a while).

Mr Sarkozy has mentioned the slights he suffered as the least well-off boy of his chic school in Neuilly, Paris's richest suburb. Mr Banier neglected even to complete his baccalauréat, haunting luxury hotel lobbies from his teens on, becoming in rapid succession the favourite of such luminaries as the painter Salvador Dali, the Nobel-prize playwright Samuel Beckett, and the couturiers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin. The Communist poet Louis Aragon enthused about the first novel Mr Banier published, aged 22.

Mr Sarkozy came to the attention of Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist party stalwart and key power-breaker who was to help shape most of his career, with his first public speech at a national rally: he was just 20 at the time.

Today Nicolas Sarkozy is president of the French Republic, while François-Marie Banier, a polymath photographer, painter and novelist, has recently been ranked 917th richest individual in the world, having accepted fabulous gifts from a string of wealthy old ladies, ranging from the viscountess Marie-Laure de Noailles to the actress Silvana Mangano - and especially from his latest patron, Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old L'Oréal heiress.

The two men, no longer so young (Mr Banier is 63, Mr Sarkozy 55) nor as pretty as they both once were, stand at each end of a glittering chain of achievements, events, relationships, networks and rivalries now threatening to engulf France in the kind of political meltdown not seen here since the 1930s.

Mr Sarkozy's poll ratings, already dire, have plunged to ominous lows, with fewer than 32 per cent saying they still trust him. The latest projections are that the 2012 presidential race wil be won by the lacklustre Socialist leader, Martine Aubry, who in a second-round run-off against Mr Sarkozy would win 52 per cent of the vote.

But that's only if the second round is a traditional contest between Right and Left. Other, more worrisome, figures show that French public opinion holds politicians of both main parties in equal contempt, with only the Front National's Marine Le Pen showing a strong improvement in her rating, albeit still behind the others.

If that trend isn't reversed, France could see a repeat of 2002, when the Front National won second place in the first round of presidential voting, allowing its leader - Ms Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie - to challenge Jacques Chirac in the second round.

All French scandals are complicated (they're never about something so depressingly simple as sex), partly because they hide within layer upon layer of secrets in a country which has never believed in transparency.

"Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés" (To be happy, live hidden), a maxim of the 18th-century poet Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, remains a byword here.

The political revelations of L'Affaire Bettencourt came out almost by accident. Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, Liliane's daughter, 57, brought to court a case against Mr Banier, whom she accuses of abusing her elderly mother's trust to gain favour - specifically, being showered with gifts of cash and artworks.

This was three years ago, soon after the death of her father, Mrs Bettencourt's husband, André. (She may have feared that her newly-widowed mother was dangerously unmoored; after Bettencourt's death there was talk of Mr Banier being adopted by Liliane.)

The case dragged on. The daughter tried to prove that her mother's mind was befuddled. The mother refused a psychiatric evaluation, countering that her daughter was jealous of Mr Banier, who was "more amusing, more interesting" while Françoise was "dull" and had "no conversation."

Mrs Bettencourt's worth is estimated between 17 and 20 billion euros. "If you can afford it, it's very nice to be able to be generous," she recently said in a television interview.

If it wasn't for the Monopoly money amounts (993 million euros given to Mr Banier over four years in the form of Matisses, Picassos, life insurance contracts and a Seychelles island), it would look like every mother-daughter bitter feud, writ large.

Still handsome and elegant today, Liliane Bettencourt was for decades one of France's great society beauties. (The stylised woman painted in the early 1960s by the celebrated illustrator René Gruau, to figure on the golden cans of L'Oréal's best-selling Elnett hairspray, was modelled after Liliane. The hairspray container is unchanged today, an example of timeless design.) Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, not to put a fine point on things, is rather plain.

Liliane's adored father Eugène Schueller, the founder of the L'Oréal fortune, was a notorious Collaborationist, who financed a number of fascist parties in the Thirties, was a Vichy regime enthusiastic supporter, and paid for the exfiltration to South America of some French Nazis at the Liberation.

Françoise married the grandson of Neuilly's Résistant rabbi, who died in Auschwitz.

Liliane Bettencourt's help – her butler, her secretary, her accountant, her driver – started taking sides. Those who showed too much favour to Françoise (or didn't hide their distaste for Banier, an increasingly frequent, often rude visitor) were fired. With compensation, but fired.

As it turns out, this was a spectacularly bad decision. The family's butler had started taping the conversations taking place in the expansive neo-Art deco Neuilly house, where Mrs Bettencourt has lived since commissioning it in 1951. (This is very much a tale of Neuilly, a kind of French South Kensington where the residents voted against having a second Métro line extended from Central Paris, because it would bring petty crime to their doors. Not long after that vote, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected Mayor, aged 28.) This was, the butler said, because he felt his boss was being taken advantage of.

Upon getting the sack, the butler went to Françoise (a mere 50 yards away, in a house almost as grand) and gave her a computer memory card containing the recordings, made on a tiny machine hidden on the drinks trays. (The Liliane-Banier camp counter that Françoise paid him all along to make them).

Three weeks later, Françoise handed 28 CDs of the recordings to the police. For good measure, she also gave them to an investigative website and a news magazine, which published very long excerpts. One can't but assume she had listened to them. Did she realise the conflagration they would trigger?

The recordings were dynamite. Not so much because, at times, Mrs Bettencourt did sound forgetful and hazy about the whereabouts of her immense fortune (she had, for instance, completely forgotten about two Swiss bank accounts containing over 100 million euros) and how much of it she'd given Mr Banier - but more because of the personalities and doings of her chief financial adviser and her lawyers.

Patrice de Maistre, the head of her "family office," a Jockey Club member, is heard advising her on where to hide large amounts of money from the French taxman (Singapore is in, now that Switzerland has become leaky). He boasts of having hired the then-Budget Minister Eric Woerth's wife, herself a former Rothschild banker, "to oblige him" - although he also badmouths Mrs Woerth, "who really puts on airs, playing too much the minister's wife."

Mr de Maistre angles to be given (tax-free, in Switzerland) a 60-foot sailing boat. He drops a few unsavoury comments about John Elkann, Gianni Agnelli's grandson, who is Jewish ("isn't it typical how they always gravitate to money?" he laughs, which Liliane interrupts with "I'm absolutely not anti-Semitic").

And he explains how cheap it is to contribute officially to a French politician's campaign, since individual gifts are capped at 7,500 euros. ("They are so grateful, and it really isn't much at all.")

In other recordings, lawyer and money manager discuss on their own how best to prevent Banier from getting even more. It makes for a riveting read – and a rare bird's eye view of the vernacular of France's super-rich, where tax evasion and influence-currying come naturally.

Having the wife of then minister in charge of tax employed, at the very least, in a place where fraud took place, was bad enough. How much did she know? asked the predictable headlines.

Worse was to follow. The usually tame French press took the bit between their collective teeth, and in the intervals between clamouring for Mr Woerth's resignation from his current job as labour and social affairs minister (a key post since he's in charge of pushing through Mr Sarkozy's great pension reform), went digging.

Soon, Mediapart, the investigative website, found another fired employee, an accountant, who blithely told how for years she collected large wads of cash from Mr and Mrs Bettencourt's bank to give to politicians in brown envelopes – most recently 150,000 euros to Mr Sarkozy's presidential campaign in early 2007.

The accountant was subsequently harshly grilled by the police and seemed to withdraw some of her accusations (she had been told by Mr de Maistre who the money was for, but had never actually seen it given out), then recanted her recant. Meanwhile the bank balances did show withdrawals for the various amounts she'd mentioned at the given dates.

"This proves nothing!" Mr Sarkozy's supporters and assorted lawyers roared. But by then it was of course too late – the general impression of cronyism and corruption was disastrous, compounded by the stonewalling, in time-honoured fashion, from the Elysée. (Earlier in the month, two cabinet ministers who'd abused their expenses in an unrelated polemic had to step down, which was seen as too little, much too late.)

Mr Sarkozy won't go and can't be investigated, because of the same presidential immunity that so often shielded Jacques Chirac. I wouldn't put good money on Mr Woerth staying, even though the current wisdom at the Elysée is that he is necessary to the pensions law, and that if he steps down Mr Sarkozy's most emblematic reform, on which he was hoping to be reelected, is toast.

But it's increasingly obvious that we have reached a paradigm shift, where the old Chirac saw, "Never admit to anything, never answer on anything", finally no longer applies in France.

The French, from a unique, centuries-old mix of Catholic and Marxist distrust hardwired in their collective psyche, have always despised money and mistrusted the rich.

At the very time when he is asking for belt-tightening and rallying together, Mr Sarkozy, the bling-bling president of the early days, the outraged victim of the Clearstream smear campaign, appears himself finally to have stepped over the line.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The French know that there's nothing romantic about a coalition government

We are used to uneasy alliances being formed between people who have spent campaigns taking potshots at one another, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet .

The French are watching the Cameron-Clegg lovefest with bemused eyes. We’ve had coalition governments galore; in fact, single-party domination is the rarity here.

We are used to uneasy alliances being formed between people who have spent campaigns taking potshots at one another and can barely stand to be in the same room. Think Mitterrand and the Communists in 1981, or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac in any number of unhappy permutations.

When the troops all finally get to stand together on the steps of the Elysée Palace, nobody tries to put on a brave face. You can almost hear the whirring as minds calculate how best to trip up the chap with the job you want.

People argue that Clameron – that’s what they’re calling the happy pair on the internet – come from such similar male, white, expensively educated backgrounds that it’s normal they should find it easy to deal with one another. Think again. You would be hard-pressed to find a more narrowly homogeneous ruling class than the French. They all attended the same government school, ENA, and, 20 or 30 years on, still mention the exit ranking of colleagues with the same contempt or respect Britain would give to Cameron’s Eton schooling, or John Prescott’s cruise stewarding. Paris watched the Love, Actually remake in the garden of Number 10 and thought, to a French (wo)man: “Come off it, you two.”

Forgetting one’s differences and working together for the public good? We haven’t bothered with that since 1945, with de Gaulle. It lasted less than a year (although it did create our National Health system, la Sécurité Sociale, and nationalised Renault, the banks, insurance companies, utilities, and mines). One of our wilier politicians’ lines, “Promises only commit those who believe in them” generally obtains in the horsetrading that gives birth to most of our governments.

And in France, nobody is ever allowed to forget who won the most votes. Cameron may not be President of Great Britain, but the Tories have more than 300 seats. The idea that he would dilute his hold on the house by ushering in PR seems suicidal – and stupid – to us.

The Sarkozy way would be to entice the dozen or so MPs needed for a full majority to cross the floor, lured by plum jobs and gongs. The threat of PR is only used to divide your opponents: the elder Mitterrand stayed in power by introducing PR. It gave Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front a couple of MPs in the National Assembly and was abolished two years later, but that was enough to ensure the FNs political durability, while keeping marginal constituencies out of the Right’s hands.

The French do think, however, that Cameron was right to ignore those hard-liners who felt it might have been better to leave a Lib-Lab coalition to make a hash of things, before calling another election. Sarkozy has few Shakespearean traits, but he does understand about tides in the affairs of men. Victory should always be seized, he would say, and has a momentum of its own.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Sarah Brown is the leading lady

From the Labour wreckage, one character steps unsullied. Sarah Brown, for whom no commentator had an unkind word. How could Labour’s second most visible spin doctor escape criticism? You’d have thought her First Ladies Hollywood gig last year, alongside the big-haired wives of such luminaries of democracy as Presidents José Eduardo Dos Santos of (oil-rich, human rights-poor) Angola or Paul Biya of Cameroon, not to mention Paris Hilton (“I loved Paris, she’s so smart!” Sarah gushed) might have dented her perfect image. Not a bit. I look forward to reports of Sarah’s speaking engagements and fees in the coming months.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

A knife in the heart of cuisine

Putting Eurodisney in the shade, a new American import is threatening The French Quality of Life - the Subway sandwich shop. Unknown a couple of years ago, there are now 40 franchises in the capital alone – making them an obvious threat to the French baguette.

This comes on the heels of the Starbucks offensive, which started five years ago by catering to American tourists, and is now busily replacing bistros and cafés in the remotest neighbourhoods as well as near the Champs-Elysées. With le petit noir and le jambon-beurre being replaced by skim chai frappacinos and meatball marinara subs, what further horrors does the future hold in store? Californian wine bars?

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Le Président Doth Protest Too Much



It’s hard to think of anything Nicolas Sarkozy could have done worse in his handling of le scandale (also known, somewhat unimaginatively, as Twittergate) these past two weeks. What started as vague Internet rumors and idle post-cheese course dinner-party gossip on the love life of the French president and his third wife—safely insulated from any media airing by some of the most stringent privacy laws this side of Beijing—has morphed into a major political crisis, threatening, as no mere opinion poll ratings could, Sarkozy’s bid for reelection in 2012.

The facts, if you can call them that, are a couple of blog and Twitter posts, soon alluded to on France’s answer to the HuffPost,, suggesting that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had allegedly moved in with award-winning singer Benjamin Biolay (who once worked on one of her albums) while her husband, supposedly on the rebound, was said to have been giving the benefit of his presidential experience to environment minister (and French karate champion) Chantal Jouanno.

The rumors, carefully avoided by the mainstream French media, fully aware of guaranteed dire judicial and political fallout, then surfaced in the British tabloid press, which went at it with glee, even a certain insouciance. Sarkozy and Madame have from the start been a staple of the London popular newspapers, a piñata sent from heaven to revive flagging sales and casual anti-French prejudice (tinged with envy: any poll run by the Sun or the Daily Mail would find its readers convinced that the elevator-shoed poison dwarf ruling France has more fun and a better sex life than 90 percent of them). British tabloids have bid at auction on nude pictures of Carla Bruni, run endless jokes on Sarkozy’s lack of height (and Carla’s occasional “wardrobe malfunctions,” Fleet Street code for visible lack of undergarments), commented on Sarko’s custom-made low-slung lecterns, alleged that he planned to slight the queen at the last D-Day celebrations (with more than a bit of help from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on that one), have seemingly never quoted La Bruni’s name without mentioning her string of famous ex-lovers (Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Donald Trump .  .  .), and in general been having what they see as clean, harmless fun.

So everyone was flabbergasted when, far from ignoring the whole brouhaha in dignified fashion, the Elysée mounted a campaign against what Pierre Charon, a senior Elysée press adviser and old political pal of Sarkozy’s, described as “an international plot by foreign financial interests, aimed at sabotaging the 2011 French presidency of the G20.” “These rumors have cropped up in coordinated fashion,” charged Thierry Herzog, the Sarkozys’ lawyer. “Someone must be behind this.”

There followed, in the age-old French tradition, a witch hunt. A blogger and the web editor of Le Journal du Dimanche who had alluded to the rumors were promptly sacked by their publisher, Hachette-Filipacchi Presse, which happens to be owned by a crony of Sarkozy’s, Arnaud Lagardère, the missile and aerospace manufacturer. (Hachette-Filipacchi is a perilous place to mention the president’s private affairs: The editor of Paris Match, the celebrity weekly, was similarly fired two years ago for having run a picture of Cécilia Sarkozy, the president’s previous wife, with the man she’s now remarried to, on a New York street.) Hachette-Filipacchi also requested a judicial inquiry into the “fraudulent entry of data into a computer network,” strongly believed to have been pushed for by Sarkozy. Charon, meanwhile, settling some private scores, accused former justice minister Rachida Dati, now exiled in disgrace to Brussels as a Euro-MP, of spreading the rumors (probably true, but then they were on everyone’s lips) and even manufacturing them (unlikely). The glamorous Dati hit back, posing as a victim (“My phones were tapped!”) and threatening lawsuits of her own.

If the hoped-for effect was the cowing of the French press, predictably, for all but the Elysée grand strategists, it backfired. Timid (and underfinanced) the Paris newspapers may be, but all this legal activity gave them the perfect excuse: They reported on the cases, never (heaven forbid!) the actual rumors. By early April, all but the names in play were the subject of French front page stories, cover features, and TV news flashes. The last veil was then ripped by Biolay himself, egged on, it was said, by Carla Bruni, who sued France’s respected but little-watched international news channel France 24 for mentioning him in a review of the foreign press coverage, and thereby put himself in the glare of any media attention he had until then managed to escape.

By this time Sarko, having first dismissed at length a Sky news interviewer during a visit to London (“I don’t have even half a second to consider these absurdities .  .  . ”), found himself reduced to sending his wife onto the morning radio talk shows and such friendly venues as Madame Figaro, the women’s supplement of Paris’s most respectful daily, to decry, in pained but restrained tones, the vulgarity and cheapening nature of it all. Bruni, who has more experience of the foreign celebrity media than her husband, laughed off any suggestion of conspiracy, protested that Dati was “a friend,” and denied that any police investigations had been ordered. (Unfortunately for her, Bernard Squarcini, the head of DCRI, French homeland security, contradicted her hours later.)

L’Affaire is by no means over. Last week Sarko, in Washington, was again quizzed, this time in a Katie Couric interview on Iran’s nuclear program. (Couric gave him a much easier time than she did, say, Sarah Palin: “It must get slightly annoying?” she commiserated about the coverage of his private life.) Even austere newspapers like Le Monde have run many column inches on the consequences for Sarkozy’s reelection in two years. “Can the president keep his cool?” is the implicit question.

As with every ailing regime, leaks now gush out, in print, of every instance of Sarkozy weakness—how he was nearly incapacitated by his 2007 divorce; how he has surrounded himself with courtiers who daren’t warn him of obvious mistakes. (Pierre Charon was described to me by an Elysée aide as “un amuseur, someone who, 500 years ago, would have worn a parti-colored costume and a hat with bells on around the king.”) What makes all this unfortunate is that Sarkozy is still sensible in his political decisions​—reforming France’s cumbersome state pension system and, abroad, pushing for tougher sanctions on Iran, to cite just two. But unlike most of his predecessors (recall Mitterrand who for 14 years hid the existence of two parallel families, in addition to his legal one, from the public, using the vast resources of the French state), Sarkozy is no cynic. If you prick him, he does bleed. And if you wrong him, he shall want revenge.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

2012 Olympics: Maybe these Calais burghers are not so silly after all

The idea that Calais becomes English for the Olympics could be a cunning plan, reveals Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

By no yardstick could you call the spectacularly tin-eared president of the département of Pas-de-Calais a political star. When you Google Dominique Dupilet's name in the French version of the search engine, nothing more recent than 2009 crops up – and that's his own YouTube channel, not exactly a riot of activity with 185 views for his most-watched speech (on illegal immigration).

Yet M Dupilet has achieved by stealth what the force of English arms failed to do over those long centuries: he has handed over Calais. His region, he announced blithely, planned to "rebrand itself part of Britain" in order to catch part of the 2012 Olympics business. He'd always considered, he explained, "that we are the south of England". When Paris lost out to London in a bid to host the 2012 Games, this one Frenchman was busy, in his own words, "hoisting up the British flag". Soon, the département had quietly voted some 100 million euros (close to £90 million) of French taxpayers' money to upgrade hotels and sports installations. Teams from Uzbekistan, Senegal and Chad – to name but a few – have already signed up to train in "our weather conditions, so similar to London's".

Until recently, the whole initiative, code-named "Mission 2012", was being kept under the radar, M Dupilet told The Wall Street Journal, "because we didn't want to attract competition". Outrage in the rest of the country would be a more likely explanation. The English might be taught that Mary Tudor died with Calais engraved on her heart – but as early as the Neuvième (the class for 10-year-olds), French children are told of the 11-month siege by the army of Edward III in the Hundred Years' War, ending in 1347 with the surrender of the starved Calaisiens.

For the city to be spared, Edward commanded that six of its leading citizens surrender for execution. (They were finally reprieved, earning Edward the tag "The Merciful".) These Burghers of Calais – barefoot, in shifts, with nooses round their necks – were sculpted by Rodin on a commission from Calais City Hall in 1880 (one of the bronze casts, purchased in 1911, stands near the Houses of Parliament).

Once you add the iconic effect of a major work of art to the role of Calais in France's national narrative, you can see that of all French cities, this would be the worst in which to pull a stunt like Dupilet's. It's not that we haven't learnt to value the British over the years, but some things still rankle. Bordeaux can call itself British-spirited all it wants. Dordogne can train more cricketers than joueurs de pétanque, and we'll smile fondly. Calais, not so much.

Yet has M Dupilet really betrayed his country, or is this a cunning plan to put one over our old friends the English? Although the officials in Calais's city hall expressed outrage when I informed them of his comments ("Quoi? Non!" was the response from the mayor's office), Dupilet's team has its eye on the main chance. "The Argentines and the Quebecers have few affinities with the British," says the head of the local Office du Tourisme delicately. "They might be happier training here." Just in case you missed the point, listen to that famed Anglophile, Dominique Dupilet: "Who wants to go to Birmingham? In Pas-de-Calais, the French lifestyle is better. And as for the food over there, well, forget it."

Still, his voters might not have such a hospitable attitude. The most popular French film of 1935 was a star-studded comedy by Jacques Becker, called Carnival in Flanders, which told the story of a Flemish town threatened by Spanish occupation. The men decide to play dead and hide; the women receive the hidalgos in their homes (and sometimes in their beds). As the hordes prepare to descend, I wonder if M Dupilet's initiative shouldn't be renamed Carnival in Calais.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010