Heavy Weighs the Crown on Sarkozy’s Head

Western Europe

... Non, ...

It's been a scandalous couple of weeks

in French politics, at least for sons and

nephews of French presidents.

It's also been brutal for President

Nicolas Sarkozy. As fresh signs emerge that

his popularity among his core constituency

has taken a major battering, it seems like

Sarko's high-handed, monarchical style

of governing is finally catching up to him. 

More generally, this upwelling of public anger

has shone a light on the complicated,

love/hate relationship the French have

with their aristocratic elites.

First up: Frédéric Mitterrand, nephew

of former socialist president François Mitterrand

and Minister of Culture in

the Sarkozy administration. It all started

a couple weeks ago over an emotional,

televised outburst at Roman Polanski's arrest,

which he called "absolutely horrifying".

Polanski, he maintained, had been "thrown

to the lions because of ancient history."

Yet, as a member of the Sarkozy government,

Mr. Mitterrand was speaking way out of turn.

More than impolitic, his overreaction was  also

completely out of step with French public opinion.

Surprisingly enough, polls show that 65-75%

of voters actually agree that Roman Polanski

ought to be extradited to the US.

A socialist, like his late uncle, Mr. Mitterrand

is the first openly gay senior French minister,

one of a handful of political appointments

plucked from outside Sarkozy's ruling party.

Rivals like ultra-rightwing nationalist Marine Le Pen

jumped at the opportunity to denounce Mitterrand

with charges of hypocrisy, and worse.

At issue is his 2005 autobiography,

titled "La Mauvaise Vie", literally "The Bad Life,"

in which he related his experiences with

"young boys" as a sexual tourist in Asia.

Here's how he described one such

experience in an Asian sex club:

All these rituals of the slave market excite

me greatly. The light is ugly, the music gets

on my nerves, the shows are sinister, and

one could consider that such a spectacle,

dreadful from a moral standpoint,

is also repulsive and vulgar.

But it pleases me beyond reason.

The abundance of very attractive boys,

immediately available, puts me

in a state of desire that I no longer need t

o curb or conceal. Money and sex, I am

in the heart of my system, one that finally

works for me, because I know I will not

be refused…

Western morality, the endless guilt and

shame that I drag with me, shatters;

and the world goes to ruin…

At the time, the book was largely ignored

by the public, though literary critics liked it.

Dominique Fernandez at the Nouvel Observateur

called it "a touching and modest confession…

[where] much is allusive and left unsaid."

Ambiguity may be a terrific literary strategy,

but in politics, what you leave unsaid

is only fuel for speculation. Mr. Mitterrand has

repeatedly denied sleeping with underage prostitutes.

But in light of the Sarkozy administration's ongoing

negotiations with the Thai government over ways

to combat sexual tourism, his impassioned defense

of Polanski struck a dissonant note.

"As a minister of culture he has drawn attention

to himself by defending a film maker accused

of raping a child," Socialist party spokesman

Benoit Hamon told Reuters "and he has written

a book where he said he took advantage

of sexual tourism. To say the least,

I find it shocking."

On Friday, Sarkozy made an about face

and also came out in defense

of Polanski—many suspect at the urging

of  French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy,

who counts Mitterrand as a close friend.

However, the president also attempted

to draw a line under the Mitterrand affair.

"Frédéric Mitterrand has recognized that

his declaration was an error and that

he regretted it," said the president,

"I couldn't say it any better."

Jean Sarkozy.  Source Wikimedia.

Jean Sarkozy. Source Wikimedia.

Next up was Jean Sarkozy, the second son

of the head of state. Just 23-years-old,

and already he's been tapped to head EPAD,

the development board that oversees

the giant office park La Défense,

to the west of Paris—the largest of its kind

in Europe. "Prince Jean," as he's sometimes called,

is set to take over the gavel at an organization

with an annual budget of €115 million

(around $160 million). There is, however,

some concern that he may be

a tad young for the job, seeing as how

he hasn't quite finished law school.

"You have to ask," former French presidential

candidate Segolène Royale said in

a radio interview, "If he had a different name,

would he be in the place he is today?"

One imagines not.

It's worth noting, in the space of this article

alone, already there've been

three politicians mentioned, who  happen

to be related to other

famous politicians—Mitterrand, Sarkozy

and Le Pen. (Marine Le Pen is the daughter

of rightwing demagogue and presidential

spoiler Jean Marie Le Pen.) 

This is an anomaly.  Dynastic politics are not

the norm in France. The French pride themselves

on an egalitarian system of education

that tracks and cultivates the technocratic

politicians who run the state.

At the top of the system, the École Nationale

d'Administration (ENA) takes the elite

of the already selective grandes écoles,

and prepares them for government service.

ENA graduates, or enarques, inhabit

the top levels of government and business

in France, and include two

of the last four presidents. "Many French will tell you

that the good state should be run

by the best qualified technicians,"

historian Gil Mihaely tells the Faster Times.

The classic political career in France unlike

in the United States, is not to be

a lawyer or businessman, but to go

through the state apparatus.

"French people don't understand how

someone can run a very complicated organization

without having the requisite diplomas," he explains.

Of course, in practice, the system is not

nearly as egalitarian as advertised. 

Education may be the great leveler in France,

but just like the American Ivy League,

the children from the upper middle class

and higher hold a disproportionate share

of places at France's elite schools.

The grandes écoles, in turn, take

a disproportionate share of state money.

(Meanwhile, kids at the bottom rung

can hope for soccer tickets.)

And what makes this educational inequality

all the more insidious is that the tracking,

which begins at school, continues

throughout a career.

Believe it or not, it's not enough

to graduate from ENA; even a student's ranking,

out of the tiny elite graduating class

of around a hundred, can affect his or her

chances later in life.

It all adds up to a system that strongly

favors and perpetuates the status quo.

In recent years, French politics have grown

increasingly populist, and it's become common

for politicians to bash ENA and the technocratic

elite it's come to represent.

While pursuing the presidency, Sarkozy made

a lot of hay out of the fact that

he was a lawyer and not an enarque,

unlike his rival, Segolène Royale.

In truth, many establishment figures did find

Sarkozy's self-made image threatening.

And now, to a certain extent, by entering

politics early and seeking a law degree

in lieu of something more prestigious,

Sarkozy the younger is simply following

in daddy's footsteps.

La Défense.  Photo by Max London

La Défense. Photo by Max London

Except, his path has been seriously greased.

"My personal opinion is that, although what

they're doing is legal, it should fall

under the category 'things that are just not done,'"

admits Mr. Mihaely. "It's looking more and more

like he's being anointed."

Like his father, Jean Sarkozy was elected

to the city council in the tony suburb

of Neuilly-sur-seine at the tender age of 22. 

Young Nicolas spent the next six years

on the council working as a party organizer

for the center right. He was running

the reelection campaign when

the mayor suddenly died of a heart attack.

Sarko's mentor, Charles Pasqua, was

the heir presumptive, but he happened

to be temporarily hospitalized, and so

Sarko seized the opportunity

and won the election.

Jean, by contrast, ran unopposed for his seat

on the suburban city council, in a neighborhood

where his dad won 85% of the presidential vote.

Three months later, Prince Jean's colleagues

on the council elected him council president,

and the following year, the same colleagues

nominated him to run EPAD. 

This is egregious enough, but from

a public relations standpoint, the Sarkozy dynasty

has only made things worse

by acting oblivious and entitled.

The president has argued that his son

is being unfairly targeted by the media,

and he has mustered his entire political

machine to defend him.

This morning's right-leaning Figaro website

ran a story titled, "La Défense Needs

Jean Sarkozy's Dynamism", which is

a pretty bald euphemism

for callow youth and blatant inexperience.

Now the polls are showing what

privately members of the ruling

party confirm: the scandals of the last

two weeks have severely undercut

the president's political support.

A CSA/Le Parisien poll last week found

51% of his supporters viewed

Jean Sarkozy's promotion as

"a bad thing." 62% said they

still favored Sarko's continuing support

for Frédéric Mitterand;

that compares to 40% of voters overall.

The irony of it all is that much of this

probably could have been avoided

if Jean Sarkozy had just stayed

in school a little longer.

The children of elites getting

handed the levers of power—so long as

they've got the right educational

pedigree—that's not nepotism;

that's just business as usual in France.

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