Monday, December 17, 2012

France warms to Gérard Depardieu, the heroic exile

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime minister, may come to regret insulting the actor who symbolises Gallic exuberance 

Depardieu is excessive in every way, but he’s never been a hypocrite
Depardieu is excessive in every way, but he’s never been a hypocrite Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Asterix and Obelix have deserted Gaul. Or at least the two actors who played them in three blockbuster movies have. With Gérard “Obelix” Depardieu’s much-trumpeted exile to Belgium last week, following Christian “Asterix” Clavier’s move to London in October, France has lost her best-known fictional heroes, undefeated by Julius Caesar’s legions, but vanquished by François Hollande’s punitive new 75 per cent top marginal income tax rate, recently hiked capital gains tax, and reinforced wealth tax.

 The symbolism has not been lost on the French. When France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, the CEO and main shareholder of the luxury behemoth LVMH, applied for Belgian citizenship last August, it was easy for Socialists to paint him as an unpatriotic, despicable fat cat. “Get lost, you rich b------” blasted a headline on the front page of Libération, the Left-wing daily, effectively capturing the national mood.

But Depardieu is a vastly different proposition from a wealthy tycoon and former asset-stripper whose children’s weddings warrant 10-page spreads in society magazines. When Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s prime minister, contemptuously called him “a pathetic loser”, Depardieu shot back with an open letter published on Sunday. “I was born in 1948,” he wrote, “I started working aged 14, as a printer, as a warehouseman, then as an actor, and I’ve always paid my taxes.” Over 45 years, Depardieu said, he had paid 145 million euros in tax, and to this day employs 80 people. Last year he paid taxes amounting to 85 per cent of his income. “I am neither worthy of pity nor admirable, but I shall not be called 'pathetic’,” he concluded, saying that he was sending back his French passport.

For a few hours, the government spin doctors thought the French, whose deep mistrust of money is rooted in a dual heritage of Catholicism and unreconstructed Marxism, would join in the public shaming. It did not happen. An online poll conducted by the popular Le Parisien tabloid showed almost 70 per cent supporting the country’s wayward son and poster boy for glorious political incorrectness.

Depardieu has lit up on Jonathan Ross’s show (and growlingly ground his cigarette stub into the studio carpet after a heated exchange); has urinated in an overflowing plastic bottle on an Air France plane after being refused permission to use the loo; has kicked the fenders off an offending car which had crowded him in a Paris street; once peed (not on purpose) on the leg of a Deauville policeman who asked for an autograph in a car park; has punched countless paparazzi on three continents; and over the years has managed to alienate many fellow stars with the kind of blunt talk no luvvie would ever utter. “She has nothing, I can’t even comprehend how she made 50 movies,” he once said of Juliette Binoche.

Depardieu is excessive in every way, but he’s never been a hypocrite: there have been no stints in rehab after one too many drunken brawls; no staged acts of contrition at any moment of his chaotic private life; no tabloid-monitored diets or fitness regimes. A working-class boy with no formal training but a miraculous gift for bringing to life the most complex nuances of almost every character he has played, he manages to make the classics as accessible as Asterix. He has made over 170 movies and given memorable stage performances – his Tartuffe, the protagonist of Molière’s eponymous play, ranks up there with Louis Jouvet’s historic 1950 performance, exposing the vulnerability and vertiginous loss of control of a devout hypocrite usually played for laughs. He makes his own wine from his own vineyards, owns two restaurants, has written cookbooks of hearty traditional French cuisine. He is, perhaps, a compendium of what the French most aspire to be, taken to epic heights.

He’s been an amnesiac Napoleonic colonel under the Bourbon kings (Le Colonel Chabert); the Provençal peasant ruined by the drought in Jean de Florette; Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and screen; Christopher Columbus for Ridley Scott; Reynaldo in Branagh’s Hamlet. He has worked with Bertolucci, Ang Lee (in Life of Pi), Godard, Resnais, Handke, Truffaut, Wajda, Weir; he’s been Jean Valjean and Rasputin. In short, he is a monument, and he is very difficult to hate.

I remember seeing him at a Cannes film festival party, more than 20 years ago, given in a villa on the hills by Premiere magazine when it was edited by the magnificent Michèle Halberstadt. It was raining violently, the music was blaring in every room of the house, and alone in the sodden garden, in the middle of a waterlogged flowerbed, drenched, his face to the starless sky, like an Easter Island statue, was Depardieu, howling at the cloud-veiled moon. Now that he is settling in an 800,000-euro Walloon house less than a mile from the French border, I can imagine him howling in just the same way at the Hollande crowd and assorted spin doctors. He won’t let them forget him.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Arnaud Montebourg: France's love-hate relationship with 'the madman on the third floor'

He is the firebrand minister who told Indian industrialist Lakshmi Mittal that he was "not welcome in France". He is also the surprising new hero of the Left, as Anne-Elisabeth Moutet writes.
Arnaud Montebourg: France's love-hate relationship with 'the madman on the third floor'

In happier times: Audrey Pulvar announced her split with the minister via the media Photo: REX FEATURES

He is the grandly-named and grandstanding "minister for productive economic recovery" - an outcome which France, and Francois Hollande's struggling Socialist government, sorely needs.

But to say that all is not well with Arnaud Montebourg, a firebrand and populist left-winger who opposes most of the features of a modern economy, would be an understatement of equally grandiose proportions.

And the fact that this weekend he remains - just - in his post indicates the confusion at the heart of the French government.

Last weekend Montebourg, 50, had almost resigned; on Wednesday he was very nearly fired by Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, who gave him a sharp dressing down in front of group of goggle-eyed Socialist MPs.

Only the previous week, he'd been dumped by his high-profile girlfriend, Audrey Pulvar, a television personality who let him know by a text message she sent Agence France Presse.

Speculation on the beautiful Miss Pulvar's reasons for deciding to end their very public affair is rife, but everyone in France is well-aware of how Montebourg ended in the political doghouse.

A former crusading lawyer who built up popular support on the left of the Socialist party, and beyond, for his anti-corruption, anti-globalisation views, Montebourg drew international ire and national dismay for his response to industrial negotiations on the possible closure of the loss-making Lorraine steelworks at Florange.

He proclaimed that their owner, the Indian tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, was "not welcome in France" – where Mittal still employs some 20,000 people in many other locations.

 Coupled with a threat - now seemingly abandoned - of "temporary" nationalisation, in a style not unlike the General Motors bailout, of the Florange steelworks, this gave out a strong echo of the last time a Socialist government took over in France: more than 30 years ago, in 1981, when President François Mitterrand's Socialist-Communist cabinet decided to nationalise banks and large industrial corporations.

This is not the impression Hollande, and especially Ayrault (who happens to have a Mittal plant in his own Loire Atlantique constituency) want to make on the financial markets.

Until now they have kept lending to France at exceptionally reasonable rates - a smidgeon under 2 per cent for 10-year bonds, despite the recent downgrade from AAA-rating by Moody's that followed a similar move from Standard & Poors in January.

In the almost seven months since he took office, Hollande has acquired a reputation for economic shilly-shallying: hefty tax increases on business were almost immediately followed by tax breaks, for instance, while an announced 60 per cent capital gains tax for start-up entrepreneurs was rescinded after a few days of furious Tea-Party style Facebook campaigning by opponents. But so far this has not been punished internationally, even though it has translated domestically into the worst poll ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic since 1962.

Ayrault was of a mind to let Montebourg go, supported – even egged on – by Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, who in theory is Montebourg's boss, but in practice has been frequently outshone by the figure referred to by many at the ministry's mammoth futuristic pile on rue de Bercy as "the madman on the third floor".

Their partnership is hardly a meeting of minds: Moscovici, a former European affairs minister under Lionel Jospin 10 years ago, is of a moderate Social-Democrat bent: pro-European integration, pro-business. Montebourg, by contrast, voted No in the 2005 referendum on the European constitution and would block the import of goods from countries without social welfare provision.

"Mosco" had loathed Montebourg's ideas from the start, but things rapidly became personal as well.

After the election, but before the finance team had moved into Bercy - the name by which the ministry is known - back in May, Moscovici was forced to adjudicate on territorial disputes caused by Montebourg.

The office of the finance minister himself is traditionally on the sixth floor. Montebourg tried to dislodge the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, from the floor below, at the same time as attempting to appropriate the parking space in the courtyard assigned to the foreign trade secretary, Nicole Bricq.

In both cases Montebourg's machinations failed and he ended up, fuming, on the third floor, even further down the building than the minister for tourism and trade secretary, Sylvia Pinel. Tempers have only deteriorated over the following seven months, while the country's economic and political governance has given an impression of endless flip-flopping.

This may sound more like Big Brother on steroids than proper political disputes, but it's emblematic of the confusion reigning under François Hollande.

France's president made a lifelong career, as regional politician and party boss, of being a master of compromise, conciliating the Socialist Party's various "currents" by granting favours and advantages according to precisely-calibrated assessment of weight within Hollande's view of the ideal political balance at any given time.

Hollande is very much aware that a majority of his Socialist base likes Montebourg's flamboyance, even his gaffes – which they see as speaking truth to powerful interests. In the Mittal crisis, some polls found up to 63 per cent of French opinion supporting Montebourg's stance.

Unlike the German SDP or Britain's New Labour, the French Socialists have never formally renounced Marxist theory, and even the name "social democrat" remains a political insult in many quarters.

And this is before taking into account the sensibilities of the myriad parties to the left of the Socialists – the Greens, three small Trostkyite parties, the rump of the once-mighty French Communist Party, and a couple more tiny splinters – whose votes, added up, ensured Hollande's victory over Nicolas Sarkozy last May.

Because of France's first-past-the-post system, the Socialists enjoy in fact a clear majority in both houses of the French parliament, but still Hollande calculates as if hamstrung by a coalition, perhaps aware that he has to keep several currents within his own party from defecting to the militants on the Left.

His resulting indecisiveness is worsened by his own nature, as well as by his single previous experience close the presidency. He was a junior aide to François Mitterrand in the 1980s, and learned much from the wily old politico - who always arrived late everywhere and famously believed that you should "give time to time". In other words, wait and see how a situation would decant.

It worked for an autocrat like Mitterrand, born in 1916, and who viewed the telephone as a cutting-edge technological device. It is far less effective in Twitter time, in a man whom neither best friend nor worst foe would ever think of calling an autocrat.

And so when Montebourg spoke of "nationalisation", Hollande crucially stayed silent for five days, even inviting the troublesome junior minister to the Elysée to assure him, Montebourg afterwards said, that "nationalising the Florange steelworks until a credible buyer [was] found" was "still a possibility".

Hollande staved off Montebourg's resignation, seemingly only to let his prime minister threaten him with the sack four days later.

Hollande had his reasons – Montebourg increasingly appears to Lakshmi Mittal as the pitbull the president releases when his concessions are seen as just not good enough – but such tactics carry their own risk.

Emboldened by Montebourg's stance, and a militant political vocabulary unheard from a cabinet minister for decades, enough Socialist defectors voted with the Communist group in the Senate to defeat the Budget and the bill funding France's state health and pensions systems last week.

This was only a warning shot: both bills will now be amended, and are likely to pass the next time they return to the upper house. But the impression of weakness remains - even as most of Hollande's campaign promises, including new civil service jobs, lowering the retirement age and more teachers, go unfulfilled.

Meanwhile Montebourg is fuming at his treatment by Hollande and Ayrault, but upbeat in one respect: amid all the publicity he has become a hero for the Left.

When he stood in the last Socialist Party primary elections for a presidential candidate, he received just 17 per cent of the vote. If Hollande's government goes on giving the impression that no-one is really at the helm, the inevitable clamour for change next time may mean there's a demand for even more grandiose promises.

In the strange world of the French Left, Montebourg may consider his own prospects of becoming president himself have just risen, from impossible to merely improbable.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Thursday, November 29, 2012

We're very fond of you eccentric Anglaises

8:28PM GMT 29 Nov 2012

 French men aren’t too sure what they think of les Anglaises (this includes the Welsh and the Scots in the national perception) but, pace the shrewd Ms Géraldine Lepère, who advises unrestrained use of the word “petit” to mark your approval, they are very, very fond of les petites Anglaises.

They know exactly whom they mean by that: Jane Birkin, la petite Anglaise par excellence, reigns at the pinnacle of this pantheon, flanked by the young Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas. There was even a hugely successful 1976 rom-com, À Nous Les Petites Anglaises, that features a trio of hapless young Frenchmen sent to Brighton to learn English, who fall in love with the exotic, alluring, incomprehensible geishas of East Sussex.

Naturally, French women were all set to take umbrage – until we realised that very few Anglaises are, in fact, petites Anglaises. The rest are still largely incomprehensible to us, but in a far less threatening way.

They are – what’s the word? Bizarre. They laugh all the time. They often stay in gaggles of women, rather than flirt with the men. (Yes, we are relieved, of course, but this still seems unnatural.) Rather than cleaning their homes, they garden.

English women think beer is a major food group and that Pimm’s contains all the vitamins you need. They prefer their dogs or their horses to their boyfriends (or husbands). They don’t seem to take anything seriously, especially those things we consider with due respect: work hierarchies, their French husband’s friends (when they’re married), the proper way to give a formal Parisian dinner-party, French politics, fashion.

Especially fashion. The things an English woman wears would never pass the threshold of a French woman’s closet: Ugg boots; thick opaque black tights; lots of Bedouin-like scarves; unmatching underwear of dubious provenance; baggy jumpers and gumboots worn in the country, even in Provence (which, as we know, is Paris’s extended formal garden, not – shudder – farmland); or, suddenly, a far too grand taffeta balldress, never entirely ironed, with old-fashioned jewellery in need of cleaning.

But I will admit to playing both sides against the middle in this – as a martyred French child shipped off to a Shropshire boarding school when I was 11, I actually grew up to understand, and like, English women – in fact (shhhh!), often more than my compatriots.
English women make far better friends than French women. The high tolerance for eccentricity that pervades English society makes them fun, sisterly, unconventional. They don’t care if they lose face – something that turns your proper French Mademoiselle into a taut-skinned bore by the time she is 35. But I do sometimes wish they’d lose the Ugg boots.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Sunday, October 14, 2012

François Hollande and the bedroom farce paralysing France

As a new book scrutinises French president François Hollande’s unique personal life, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet reveals how his inability to stand up to his love interests is now threatening his administration
Francois Hollande and Segolene Royal
French president Francois Hollande and his former partner Segolene Royal Photo: REX FEATURES
It started off like a French farce. Will it end up like a Greek tragedy? France’s “First Girlfriend”, Valérie Trierweiler, may well cause the political downfall of the man she fought so bitterly to catch – and still can’t get a marriage commitment from.

Five months after he was elected, François Hollande’s popularity figures are the lowest of any French president since Charles de Gaulle signed the 1962 treaty acknowledging the independence of Algeria after a bloody anti-colonialist war.

The general consensus is that Ms Trierweiler is one of the chief reasons why the Fifth Republic’s seventh president is seen as henpecked, inefficient and vacillating – in short, not in charge.

“The five women who make his life hell” was last week’s headline on news magazine L’Express. First on the list were the president’s partners, past and present: Ségolène Royal, the former presidential contender and mother of Hollande’s four children; and Valérie, the Paris-Match journalist who won Hollande from Royal.

The other three were former Socialist leader Martine Aubry, Green leader Cécile Duflot, and Angela Merkel: they would never have been qualified by gender if Hollande’s chaotic private life wasn’t the first subject of gossip and conjecture these days.

In this toxic environment came the revelations in La Frondeuse (“The Troublemaker”), a new biography published last Thursday by journalists Alix Bouilhaguet and Christophe Jakubyszyn, that while she was busy prying Hollande away from the home he’d been making with Royal for more than two decades, the (still-married) Trierweiler was three-timing – or should it be four-timing? – him with Patrick Devedjian, a former Sarkozyste cabinet minister.

The book also recounts how, around the same time, a spitting-mad Ségolène accused Hollande of cheating on her with Anne Hidalgo, an elegant brunette Socialist politician, now Deputy Mayor of Paris, and expected to run for City Hall herself in 2015.

If, by this stage, you’re getting confused, let’s take a deep breath and plough on. Hollande and Royal meet while students at ENA, the top government school that in France guarantees you a network and a career Oxbridge graduates can only dream of. They became one of France’s Left-wing power couples, seemingly unmarried because it was so un-bourgeois, so much, well, cooler. Assigned to cover them for Paris-Match was a young and elegant political reporter, Trierweiler, herself twice-married. When, in 1992, Royal, then minister for social affairs, invited the press to the maternity clinic where she’d just had her daughter Flora, it was Trierweiler who covered the birth, in breathless prose. The fact that a woman minister would admit the public to such a personal event was treated as a feminist breakthrough.

Hollande and Trierweiler didn’t get together then; but in La Frondeuse it is alleged that they had linked up by 1997, far earlier than the official version which dates it back to 2005. Meanwhile, Trierweiler was making a name for herself in the old style of French women political journalists: getting inside information with, let’s say, allure and poise.

If this sounds distasteful, that is because it is. And for this (happily receding) journalistic tradition, we have to thank one of France’s great magazine editors, the late Françoise Giroud – later Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s minister for women’s rights – who, when she headed L’Express in the Sixties and Seventies, sent out a large number of personable female reporters to “charm” the largely male political class and get good stories.

Giroud, herself a hugely gifted writer, but also the mistress of the flamboyant politician and L’Express proprietor Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, would teach her young reporters how to dress and give them social deportment tips.

All of her alumni were talented in their own right; most of them later became top executives in television news or newspapers. Still, acceptance and access was given to them because of their youth and looks rather than their competence – and most of them had quite public affairs with (married) top politicians.

Starting out in the 1980s, I still remember how every politician I was sent to interview seemed to assume that I would be available if they cared enough to ask: after a couple of weeks, I asked my then employers to transfer me to the foreign desk. Nothing untoward had happened, but I hated every single minute it. Getting shot at in southern Lebanon was blissfully uncomplicated by comparison.

The zeitgeist moves on, even in France: while affairs still go on, the relationship between politicians and the press has been “normal” for a while. The Giroud world is as alien to politicians under the age of 40 as to the reporters covering them.

But Valérie Trierweiler is, in many ways, an old-fashioned girl. “She is insecure, jittery, unable to make a choice,” wrote the authors of La Frondeuse. “She wants it all, a career and the job of First Lady – the press pass and the office at the Élysée Palace.”

When her editors at Paris-Match, unwilling to antagonise the Élysée but aware of the conflict of interest, finally summoned up the courage to ask her to cover culture rather than politics, Trierweiler’s very first article last June was a review of an Eleanor Roosevelt biography.

“Well, well, well, a First Lady who’s also a journalist! Obviously in America these things do not cause a scandal,” the piece began, one of many examples of her tin ear. Another was the highly publicised tweet in support of Ségolène Royal’s opponent in June’s general election.

Trierweiler’s friends and critics both explain her many public mistakes, as well as her well-known sudden rages – much feared by Hollande – by her seemingly bottomless insecurity. “She dreams of getting him to marry her, but he’s not the marrying kind,” one of them told the book’s authors, who allege that if Trierweiler finally chose Hollande over Devedjian, at the time a politician with a brighter future, it is because Devedjian would not leave Corinne, his wife of 30 years.

The French are notoriously more lenient on homewreckers than les Anglais – the feeling here is that It’s All More Complicated and Not Just The Woman’s Fault. This, however, plays against Hollande.

Trierweiler is uniquely disliked (less than 29 per cent of the public have a good opinion of her), but the President is seen as commitment-shy. Increasingly, there’s a feeling that he applies the same aimlessness to his management of public affairs.

Political observers recall how under his 15-year stewardship of the Socialist Party, his unique compromise style led the party’s “currents” – a fancy name for the infighting factions more divided by personal ambitions than by ideology – to complete gridlock. Nothing ever got done. When Martine Aubry took over as leader from Hollande in 2008, she said the place was such a mess in every possible way that she even had to unblock the loos herself.

“He’s unable to take a decision,” says a friend of Aubry’s. “It doesn’t do that much harm running an opposition party. But when he negotiates with Angela Merkel, it’s a real problem.”

Just as Hollande tries to hide the occasional contact he still has with the mother of his children – prompting outbursts from Trierweiler when she finds out – he chose recently to gang up with the Italians and the Spanish rather than ask Merkel directly for the concessions he sought in the latest Eurozone negotiations, to the German Chancellor’s outrage.

And just as Merkel is now surprised to find herself missing Nicolas Sarkozy’s more direct style, the French may begin to wonder whether having a “hyper-president” in the Élysée wasn’t a better idea in difficult times than a henpecked figure hiding from the women in his life.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The politics and sex scandal that brought some glitz back to France

Does Rachida Dati's paternity suit finally solve Paris's most tantalising mystery?
Rachida Dati: opponents say she is simply stirring the pot - The politics and sex scandal that brought some glitz back to France
Rachida Dati: opponents say she is simply stirring the pot Photo: Rex Features
All it took was one legal injunction – and François Hollande’s depressed, tax-burdened France was suddenly recalling the glitz of the Sarkozy years. Rachida Dati, the Dior-clad former justice minister, now a Euro MP, had for the past four years steadfastly refused to name the father of her daughter Zohra. Miss Dati – always referred to in France as Rachida – has just filed a paternity case against the hotel tycoon Dominique Desseigne, heir to one of France’s great fortunes.

Rachida’s rapier-writ seemed finally to answer one of Paris’s tantalising mysteries: the identity of the country’s most famous single mother’s mysterious lover. Mr Desseigne’s had been among the names bandied about, but so was that of Spain’s former premier José-Maria Aznar. The married Mr Aznar had to issue a denial. Also mentioned were the EDF Energy chairman, Henri Proglio; Qatar’s attorney-general, Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri; the then President Sarkozy’s brother François, a star paediatrician; the former sports minister Bernard Laporte; and the actor Vincent Lindon. All hurried to deny the rumours.

All Rachida’s men are of a type: raffish, worldly, elegantly middle-aged, either well-off or seriously rich, and close to Nicolas Sarkozy (rightly or wrongly, the former president himself was briefly included in the tally, for which his third wife, Carla Bruni, never forgave Rachida). I remember thinking that for the Becky-Sharp-ambitious Rachida to keep such a close lid on the name, it was possible that baby Zohra’s father was a complete unknown.

Within 10 minutes of working my telephone yesterday, I felt thrown back into the overheated rumour mill of the Sarkozy Noughties. Two sources had radically opposite readings of the situation. One was a long-time friend of Mr Desseigne’s: “He’s absolutely, positively not the father. Rachida is just trying to stir the pot.” He’s betting on Aznar. “They were texting all the time when she was pregnant.” No proof, of course, was given.

The other – a Sarkozyste politician – was quite sure Mr Desseigne was the father: “Rachida isn’t stupid. There will be DNA testing. She wants some sort of child support, I expect. It also puts her back in the news at a time when the opposition is in dire need of a strong candidate for Paris mayor in 2014.”

All the same, Rachida Dati, once the bright star of Sarkozy’s rainbow cabinet, may have overplayed her hand. She was given a sinecure as mayor of Paris’s seventh arrondissement, a district that makes Knightsbridge look depressed, but couldn’t get chosen for a safe MP’s seat last June. She must have felt in danger of being forgotten – but will the whiff of bling she brings back be an asset or a liability in austerity-hit France?

The former president himself suddenly seems to be everywhere. Apart from calls for a halt to the Syrian repression, Sarkozy has kept uncharacteristically silent since his defeat in May. He now jogs in the Bois de Boulogne, or attends football matches or society weddings. At a time when François Hollande’s ratings have plummeted faster than any Fifth Republic president’s – to more than 50 per cent negative – Sarkozy is basking in a new-found popularity: 44 per cent now say he’d tackle the economic crisis better than the current lot.

The French rarely feel that foreigners can write convincingly about their history, but the first readers of Jo Graham’s new novel, The General’s Mistress, say her portrait of Ida Saint-Elme, a Dutch-born courtesan loved by Marshal Ney, gets it right. Saint-Elme rode with Napoleon’s army, travelled from Russia to Egypt and wrote the biggest-selling memoirs of the early 19th century, earning herself the scandalous name of “the female Casanova”.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

France's battle royal between Ségolène Royal and Valérie Trierweiler has the nation gripped

The warring women on the frontline are giving politics a sharply feminine edge.

Valérie Trierweiler: giving France a delightful taste of personal strife - France's battle royal between Ségolène Royal and Valérie Trierweiler has the nation gripped
Valérie Trierweiler: giving France a delightful taste of personal strife Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The French, like most of us, love a catfight. When First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler tweeted her support for the opponent of Ségolène Royal, the rival she supplanted in the affections of President François Hollande, in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, the entire nation sank with delight into the bliss of watching the political become personal.

Barely a month ago, the day after her partner was elected President of the French Republic, Trierweiler confidently told Agence France Presse how much better suited to the job she was than her predecessor, Carla Bruni, Nicolas Sarkozy’s third wife. “Carla Bruni comes from a world entirely alien to politics: fashion, showbusiness. She doesn’t know its codes.” She, on the other hand, Trierweiler explained somewhat smugly, had been a political journalist for 20 years. “I know politics, I know the media.”

The woman many of the French are calling “Rottweiler” then illustrated the shortest way to link the words “pride”, “goeth”, “before” and “fall”. Nicolas Sarkozy had been kicked out of office chiefly for having paraded his private life with ostentation. Demurring that she would play “no political part whatsoever”, Trierweiler made it difficult to forget her existence for one minute. Whether she was bemoaning that she didn’t like the title “First Lady” and inviting the public to think up a new one, or insisting that she could remain a working Paris Match reporter “in all independence” while maintaining a staff and office at the Élysée Palace, she was hardly ever out of the news.

Scenting a rich vein, the political puppet show Les Guignols de l’info hastily recycled the puppet they’d used for Jacques Chirac’s spin-doctor daughter Claude, slapping on a new wig and redoing its make-up to rush their Valérie on air. They now portray Hollande as a bumbling, henpecked husband. Deferring to She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the President is depicted fleeing to the comforting arms of a softer, sweeter, more understanding female – Angela Merkel.

But in real life, the woman Trierweiler has been obsessing about for nearly a decade is Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner of 23 years and the mother of his four children. Trierweiler admits to having started her affair with Hollande in 2005. He was then Socialist Party leader; she had been covering the Left as a Paris Match political correspondent for years. But they’d met years before: it was a young Trierweiler who reported from Royal’s maternity ward after she gave birth to her and Hollande’s last child, Flora, in 1992. She’d remained friendly with Flora’s father ever since.

Royal, who had gradually become aware of her partner’s betrayal, kept silent until the night of her 2007 defeat against Nicolas Sarkozy. Then, minutes after the result, she announced that the doors of her house were “now closed to Hollande” – who, while still officially living with her, had in fact moved into Trierweiler’s flat. It transpired that Trierweiler had egged him on to sabotage Royal’s presidential bid during the campaign.

Having lost her bid for a second presidential try in last year’s Socialist primaries, Royal immediately gave her support to her children’s father. Meanwhile, Trierweiler went to absurd lengths to sideline her. In rallies, Royal found herself seated away from other party bigwigs, and excluded from pictures. The children, who also were involved with the campaign, tried to intervene with Hollande, but to no effect; instead he often remonstrated with his advisers that they should “support Valérie: she’s so insecure”. Royal was excluded from Hollande’s Élysée swearing-in, but he did give her his official support in her bid for the La Rochelle seat, in the region where she has been council president for eight years.

This infuriated Trierweiler and led to this week’s tweeting extremes, igniting the kind of nationwide ruckus which is still in full swing. She has dug her heels in, refusing to recant her tweet. Meanwhile, several former Royal adversaries, all women, including Socialist leader Martine Aubry and Green leader Cécile Duflot, have very loudly sided with her. “I hope this tweet gets [Royal] elected,” Aubry said yesterday.

Feminine solidarity is relatively new in France, in politics and elsewhere: it was really only seen last year, at the height of the Strauss-Kahn affair, when women politicians from Marine le Pen to a Trotskyite, including two then Cabinet ministers, denounced casual sexism and double standards. Earlier, Rachida Dati, Sarkozy’s glamorous justice minister, found relatively little support when she chose to become a single mother in office, then got sidelined partly because she’d been a friend of her boss’s second wife. But all signs are that Trierweiler’s latest outburst may have triggered unintended consequences. “You started missing Sarkozy, now you will miss Carla,” Nadine Morano, a former Sarkozy minister, tweeted yesterday.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Valérie Trierweiler: France's feisty new first lady seizes the limelight from her rivals

France's new first lady is already ruffling feathers as she seizes the limelight from her rivals, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris. 
Trierweiler first met Hollande in 1988, when she was a bright, 23-year-old reporter and he was a 34-year-old MP Photo: AP
François Hollande moves into the Élysée Palace this Thursday, but he is already facing a very domestic crisis. Ever since he was declared France’s 24th president a week ago, his lover, the elegant Paris Match journalist, Valérie Trierweiler, 47, has been making headlines of her own.
For instance, Le Canard enchaîné, France’s answer to Private Eye, published an angry text message from Trierweiler to Mariana Grépinet, a colleague.
Grépinet had mentioned, in what would otherwise be described as a puff piece about France’s new presidential couple, one of Hollande’s children with Ségolène Royal, the 2007 Socialist presidential candidate and Hollande’s former lover of 23 years.

The article did not explicitly state that the couple were no longer together. "What game are you playing?" the text threateningly ended
Then there was Olivier Bourg, the radio presenter and stand-up comic, who tried to pull his trademark trick of calling Trierweiler’s mobile to wheedle careless statements from her, as he had from countless celebrities before. Trierweiler sussed him out fast enough, and retorted on air, in a pinched voice, "I won’t forget this", before hanging up.

In case anyone hadn’t got the message, on Wednesday, Trierweiler, who a UMP party ally of Nicolas Sarkozy once referred to as "Rottweiler", blocked Julien Dray, an MP and one of Hollande’s key campaign managers, from setting foot inside the victory party.

His offence appears to have been to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief, to his birthday event days earlier. Strauss-Kahn, Hollande’s rival for the Socialist presidential nomination until a New York hotel maid complained of sexual assault, mingled with Hollande’s closest advisers. Even worse, the party was held in a fashionable new restaurant in a refurbished sex shop in Paris’s red light district.

Any doubt over the political jeopardy this entailed was dispelled when Sarkozy brought up Strauss-Kahn’s attendance, to lambast Hollande during their heated television debate three days before the final vote.

But party insiders suggest Trierweiler has "had it in for Dray" for far longer. Since 2007, in fact, when he was Royal’s election campaign manager. "Valérie", they will tell you feelingly, "can certainly bear a grudge".

This had been known in political circles for a long time, but is emerging only now that media attention has turned to France’s new première dame.

When Trierweiler, a twice-divorced history graduate who has spent almost her entire career at the celebrity-obsessed Paris Match, told an interviewer she would not be a "potiche" (a decorative nonentity), it was widely interpreted as a swipe at her predecessor, Carla Bruni.

Asked how she would cope with life in the front line of French politics, she said, patronisingly, that she was far better equipped than Bruni for the role: "She came from a world totally alien to that of politics. She did not necessarily know the political codes."

This is not only dismissive but ill-judged. During her four years in the Élysée, Bruni did not put a foot wrong. She is cultured and has excellent manners. She has a sense of humour and even made friends with the journalists who lampooned her. When Le Canard enchaîné ran a spoof column, Carla B’s Diary, Bruni laughed about it among her friends and invited its author to the Élysée.

Trierweiler, by contrast, has already alienated people she ought to have been assiduously cultivating; and much of that stems from her involvement with Hollande and antagonism with Royal.

Trierweiler first met Hollande in 1988, when she was a bright, 23-year-old reporter and he was a 34-year-old MP, a former Mitterrand aide and part of the new intake.

In 1992, Trierweiler covered the birth of Flora, Royal and Hollande’s fourth child. Meanwhile, Trierweiler had three boys during her marriage to Paris Match sub-editor, Denis Trierweiler.

In 2005 she began her affair with Hollande, who was still living with Royal and their four children. When news of it reached Alain Genestar, the then editor of Paris Match, she refused to see any potential conflict of interest between her private life and her job covering the Socialist Party for the magazine. Eventually, Genestar told two journalists, he had to shift her to the cultural section of the magazine. Trierweiler, who loves the political scene, was said to be resentful.

By 2007 Royal had beaten Hollande to become the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate. Despite his affair with Trierweiler, he campaigned alongside Royal as her lover, but appeared resentful and unconvincing.

Some wondered whether Trierweiler encouraged Hollande’s seemingly passive-aggressive stance towards Royal’s candidacy. Royal would send Hollande her speeches in advance; he’d then call her minutes before she stepped on to the dais to say that the speech was all wrong. The night Royal lost to Sarkozy, the fiction that she and Hollande were together was dropped with a very public press release from Royal.

But Trierweiler’s apparent hostility towards Royal seemed to persist. One insider recalls the time that Hollande answered a question about Royal during a television interview in 2010, then received an angry text message from Trierweiler. As Franz-Olivier Giesbert, his interviewer, tried to reassure him that he had not strayed from politics in his reply, he said: "You don’t realise, I’m going to get hell at home."

In January, Hollande’s first major campaign speech as Socialist presidential candidate was introduced by a video tracing the past 40 years of the party. Jarringly, to many of the rank and file, it ended in 2002, the year that Lionel Jospin came third in the first round of the election, leaving the party without a candidate in the final run-off. Royal’s 2007 presidential bid was omitted, a decision that was chalked up to Trierweiler’s influence

Despite loyally supporting Hollande as he fought for the party’s nomination, Royal was relegated at the campaign launch to a distant seat, while Trierweiler stood close to her lover. Aides said Royal collapsed in tears afterwards.

Trierweiler had her own office at Hollande HQ during the campaign, but her feminist-sounding line is that she remains a journalist and, in any case, needs the work to support her own family. Friends say she’s writing the text for an instant coffee-table photo book on the campaign, to be published next month.

Yet Royal is not about to slink quietly from the Socialist scene. She is aiming for a role as Speaker of the National Assembly, keeping her at the forefront of French political life.

Trierweiler’s career is now under the spotlight. When the political talk show she hosted on a cable television station was cancelled, Paris Match offered to pay her to, in effect, stay at home. She is resisting that plan angrily. In an interview with tomorrow’s Elle magazine, she says she would rather interview "foreign personalities" to keep "a proper distance" without "impeding François Hollande’s work".

But she will never be far away. On election night at the Place de la Bastille, it was she who ordered Hollande, whose style this definitely is not, to kiss her on the mouth, thus securing the perfect picture.

Trierweiler will make her international debut at next weekend’s G8 summit at Camp David in the US. At the time of writing, there is wild speculation that the president and his love might hastily get married this week. And live happily ever after, of course.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Thursday, May 3, 2012

French election: It’s got very bloody in the Francois Hollande-Nicolas Sarkozy slugfest

The French presidential election has turned ugly, as Nicolas Sarkozy battles to fend off Francois Hollande.
Hardened image: one casualty of the bruising French presidential debate was Francois Hollande's reputation as a nice guy - It’s got very bloody in the Francoise Hollande-Nicolas Sarkozy slugfest
Hardened image: one casualty of the bruising French presidential debate was Francois Hollande's reputation as a nice guy Photo: AFP/Getty Images
It may have been more regulated than a Kabuki theatre performance – a set number of cameras, of arc lights on the candidates’ carefully powdered faces, of reaction shots – but in the end, Wednesday night’s French presidential debate was a slugfest.

Three days before the second round of the election, in their single TV discussion, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande went at one another hammer and tongs for three hours, trading invective and the occasional insult with an acrimony not seen in French politics since the 1930s. “Liar!” the candidates called one another; and “slanderer”, “dunce”, “joker”.

That was even before you took in the rolled eyes, the nervous twitches, the role-play. “You’re not assigning and grading essays this time,” Sarkozy told Hollande, a former economics professor at Sciences Po – a school that flunked the French president 35 years ago. The Socialist contender kept interrupting the man he spent the whole campaign calling “the outgoing president”. “You’re lying!” he said. “Answer me on this. Answer me. Will you answer me?”

The first casualty of the debate, it must be said, was François Hollande’s reputation as a nice guy. In the end, his camp – and most Paris establishment pundits – exulted. Their man had bloodied Sarkozy’s nose. All Hollande needed was to preserve his comfortable lead.

Nicolas Sarkozy, however, had carefully calibrated his performance – in stark contrast to the past five years, during which he has mostly failed to do exactly that. Having ruthlessly analysed what the French dislike in him, Sarkozy decided that the debate was about showing that he could be calm in the face of repeated provocation. On he went, laying out the bleak figures of the world economic crisis and of France’s relatively good standing in the eurozone under his stewardship. Every now and then, Sarkozy jabbed at Hollande – the name of Dominique Strauss-Kahn was lobbed in the last half hour, after Hollande had accused his opponent of dodgy party fundraising.

You could not have imagined the aloof, imperial François Mitterrand, whom Hollande served as economic aide in the 1980s, countenancing any hint of a slur. (Dripping with cold contempt, he would have dismissed the offender with a word. We all avoided examining his Vichy past because of such techniques.) Jacques Chirac had his own bluff way of discouraging familiarity. As for De Gaulle, the very idea is unthinkable.

But the increasing polarisation of French political life is changing all this. Over the past five years, France has been seized by an anti-Sarkozy frenzy that can only be compared to the shrill excesses of anti-Thatcherism in Britain, or, more recently, the heyday of Bush Derangement Syndrome in the United States. Sarkozy, to his enraged critics, is vulgar, uncouth, dishonest, unprincipled, and exhibiting Fascist tendencies in his courting of the Front National vote. L’Humanité, the hard-Left daily, last week published a front page pairing him with Marshal Pétain.

 This is bound to leave an even more difficult situation for whoever finds himself in the Élysée Palace on May 7, having to face hard choices and placate nervous financial markets. Neither candidate is in fact a shoo-in. Pundits still asserted yesterday that Sarkozy failed to make a dent in Hollande’s advance. But polls on online news sites, in the night after the debate, told another story. Two thirds on average thought Sarkozy more believable than Hollande: these are the people who no longer dare speak their mind to pollsters. It remains to be seen whether Sarkozy can pull off the greatest comeback in French politics in the past half century, or whether mud does stick in our brave new political landscape, and François Hollande becomes the Fifth Republic’s seventh president.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Nicolas Sarkozy is a victim of his own courage

The president should be applauded for his courage, hard work, plain-speaking and his love for France, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
A brave face: Nicolas Sarkozy faces an uncertain future at the hands of the French electorate - Nicolas Sarkozy is a victim of his own courage
A brave face: Nicolas Sarkozy faces an uncertain future at the hands of the French electorate Photo: Reuters
8:49PM BST 20 Apr 2012

I shall be sorry to see Sarkozy go. His defeat, if it truly comes to that in two weeks’ time – and nobody should entirely discount his dogged tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of adversity – will have been a fiasco of style over substance.
Sarko campaigned five years ago by telling the French to their faces that he would not cosset them. Their standard of living would rise, he said, if they worked harder. Even before the financial crisis changed everything in 2008, you should have heard the screams and guffaws of the people who, early on, had decided he was an insufferable oik. It was simplistic. It was condescending. It was ridiculous.
For 12 years, Jacques Chirac and his successive cabinets, Right and Left, had carefully avoided any “courageous” (in the Sir Humphrey meaning of the word) decisions that might cause the French to strike and take to the streets. Note that by “the French”, I really mean that category of civil servants and state employees who have tenure for life, and can bring the country to a standstill with a handful of union members.
This was because, a couple of months after Chirac’s election in 1995, France’s public services, and therefore the smooth running of the country, ground to a halt for almost two months in protest at a pretty mild reform of the country’s generous, pay-as-you-go pension system. Even though the vast majority of privately employed citizens managed to get to their workplaces, sometimes by dint of astonishing physical effort, Chirac fired his PM and decided never to try to push an unpopular reform again.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

It’s Mademoiselle Moutet to you, Monsieur

The French language must not lose the term of address favoured by Chanel and Deneuve.

Mademoiselle Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

8:01PM GMT 23 Feb 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

Needy Nicolas Sarkozy looks to the upper class to get re-elected

The French president has said he is going for posh, not brash, in this election, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
Needy Nicolas looks to the upper class; Sarkozy is running for office again, despite low opinion poll ratings; Reuters
Sarkozy is running for office again, despite low opinion poll ratings Photo: Reuters

Once, as he blithely launched into his first presidential campaign five years past, Nicolas Sarkozy made a point of staffing his team with the kind of faces few were used to in the arch-homogeneous French political world. (Think white, middle-class, middle-aged, usually male, graduated from two or three elite institutions, unbearably smarmy.) Out the conservative candidate went to the country’s banlieues and tough estates, plucking French-Arab and African community organisers and entrepreneurs to help blur his Rightist image. For his spokesperson, Sarkozy picked Rachida Dati, a combative mid-level judge born of a Moroccan father and Algerian mother, who became a star, then – as the new face of diverse France – justice minister, featuring on magazine covers in Dior and Louboutin heels.

As it turned out, the hirings soon soured on Sarkozy, or he soured on them. The president has just announced he is going for posh, not brash this time. His campaign spokesperson is the arch-establishment Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the 38-year-old minister for environment, grand-daughter of a former ambassador to the US and descended from a general who fought with George Washington.

NKM, as she is known, cultivates a pre-Raphaelite beauty – diaphanous skin, long red hair, large blue eyes – with the blunt expressions of someone who chose to do national service in the French Navy. Her style is about as far from Rachida Dati’s conventional haute-bling as possible – NKM mixes arcane Japanese designers with white silk shirts, a family signet ring with artist-designed chokers. NKM is a hard worker and a canny communicator – she has by far the most Twitter followers of the cabinet, at 110,000. She has been known to stand up to Sarkozy – at one stage he demoted her to junior minister to the digital economy, seen as the graveyard shift. She fulfils the almost impossible equation of pleasing both the traditional Right, where the president’s pollsters think that there are enough votes to claw back from the dismal figures, and the Bobos, the affluent liberal voters seduced by the Greens and the more modern wing of the Socialist party.

What she isn’t, though, is well-liked among her own. She is seen, not without cause, as no team player. The youth employment minister, Nadine Morano, the John Prescott of the cabinet, a lorry-driver’s daughter competing for the spokeswoman job, sees NKM as a personal enemy. Not a single one of the MPs in NKM’s constituency call her an ally. They recall bitterly that as minister she used up all her subsidies budget for the one train line that reached her town, leaving not a centime for the other branch line.

If Sarkozy scrapes by for a second term on May 6, NKM is well-placed for a major ministry, possibly even for the PM’s job. She obviously feels that it is worth ruffling a few feathers.


I am now (sort of) famous on Twitter, after Sarah Brown elle-même retweeted my last Telegraph piece on the Merkozy duo. Obviously she felt calling Angela Merkel “Sarko’s latest arm candy” was offensive to women everywhere. I would have thought seeing Sarkozy start his presidency flaunting, as a PR stunt, a Prada-dressed trophy wife on his arm and ending it with the leader of Europe’s most powerful country at his side signalled a realigned sense of priorities. Never mind, I’m enjoying all the nice new followers.


They used to call it Tinseltown, but it may become Glittertown now that the statuesque Nadja Swarovski, of the crystal dynasty, has set up a production company to put out a new Hollywood version of Romeo and Juliet, scripted by Julian Fellowes. No doubt we’ll finally get to know why the Capulets wouldn’t let Juliet marry Romeo. Too nouveau? Fish knives and cruet holders at the Montague dinners?

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

France falls for Nicolas Sarkozy’s new arm-candy

They may seem an odd couple, but Angela Merkel is working wonders for the struggling president.

Sarko-Merkel: a grudging respect has developed between these two mismatched characters - France falls for Sarkozy’s new arm-candy
Sarko-Merkel: a grudging respect has developed between these two mismatched characters Photo: Christopher Jones / Rex Features

Back in 2007, a grinning Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated at the Élysée under the watchful gaze of his statuesque second wife, Cecilia, wrapped in Prada oyster satin. Last Monday, coming into the final straight of his 2012 re-election campaign, badly lagging in the polls with less than 80 days to run, a sobered, silver-templed Sarkozy appeared on television in the exact same place next to another woman of his age, whom he similarly expects to buttress his popularity among the French voters.

There the similarities end: Angela Merkel, the doughty German chancellor, has never attained anything approaching glamour, even when sporting a vertiginous décolletage at the opera to the vocal dismay of her compatriots (and more than a few snarky giggles from the French).

In many ways, this was the point. Nicolas Sarkozy – once so certain that the French wanted a glittering, Kennedy-style First Family that he piled tin-eared mistake upon mistake, for which he still hasn’t been forgiven by the electorate – now aims to project a realistic image. It’s too late, he feels, for the French to start loving him. Not that they were ever going to; Sarkozy has never stopped viewing himself as the ultimate outsider: too foreign, too short, unclubbable, not an ENA graduate (the government school from which most politicians, mandarins and bosses originate), not enough enamoured of style over substance – the French elites’ besetting sin.

Now he presents himself as the competent helmsman in a crisis, the man who fought for the euro (and prevented two out of three ratings agencies from downgrading France); the champion of tough but ultimately effective policies, ready to do what it takes to keep the country prosperous, instead of inflating the deficit sky-high by (among other spending measures) hiring 60,000 new civil servants, as the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, promises in his platform.

Mrs Merkel is his last trump card – whether Sarkozy is whisking her out for a prime-time television interview, or for two rallies in the campaign he hasn’t formally declared yet (but is already planning). Poll after poll by the Élysée spin teams show that the French rate the German chancellor far higher than their own man. They see her as competent, serious, powerful. This is the new kind of arm-candy the Sarkozy of 2012 is aiming for.

The president once believed that the French admired his 2008 speed-wooing of Carla Bruni, who fast became the third Mme Sarkozy. He now thinks winning Angela Merkel over will show how much he has matured. After all, if the financial crisis has solidified their partnership to the extent of coining the “Merkozy” tag for their duet, it wasn’t always thus.

It is no secret that early on, Merkel could barely stand to be in the same room as the French president. He immediately took to kissing her on both cheeks – not as bad as George W Bush’s neck-and-shoulders massage at the 2006 St Petersburg G8, but still – to grabbing her arm and calling her “my dear Angela”. But this was far from making up for decisions such as the French-British military treaty, for calling her “La Boche” (The Kraut) behind her back, or joking about her longstanding battle with her weight (“she tells you she’s on this new diet, then she helps herself to cheese twice”).

Until the appointment to the Cabinet of Bruno Le Maire, the agriculture minister, Sarkozy’s inner circle did not feature one German-speaker. “Would you spend your holidays in Germany?” the president once asked visitors in bewildered tones, a jibe that was swiftly leaked to the German press. And as late as last year, Sarkozy berated Merkel’s “pusillanimity”, saying her failure to commit early on to shoring up Greece let the debt crisis spiral out of control, “all this to keep her own voters happy”.

Merkel, for her part, looked on Sarkozy so uncomprehendingly that her staff, many of whom have actually studied in France, prepared a “cultural package” for her. It notoriously included several movies starring the great French comic actor Louis de Funès, who specialised in playing short, outrageously unfair, irate, aggressive characters. “She had to have every joke explained to her!” a weary Merkel aide told one of his French buddies – who promptly leaked it to the French press.

Yet a grudging respect has developed between these two mismatched characters. Merkel has made no secret of her growing respect for Sarkozy’s dogged determination during the marathon Euro-summits of the past year, even when she sometimes disagreed. She has publicly said that Germany should model its welfare net and social policies on France’s. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has been praising Germany’s handling of the economic crisis, willingness to tackle salary inflation, and, of course, its robustly positive trade balance.

Nicolas Sarkozy counts as a major personal victory the fact that Angela Merkel is willing to support him in his campaign for re-election, even at the risk of criticism at home. Long past are the days when Élysée press officers briefed on the “non-inevitability” of the French-German axis, and explained that France and Britain had at least as many reasons to foster a new entente cordiale. When push comes to shove, even beyond hard economic realities, the old De Gaulle-Adenauer alliance wins. It was really a foregone conclusion, after Giscard d’Estaing-Schmidt, Mitterrand-Kohl and Chirac-Schröeder. After all, how else would France get to (co)lead Europe, and Germany’s power be seen as acceptable?