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
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."
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.
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.
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.Link here
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