Letter from Paris Season of Scandale

Letter from Paris

Season of Scandale

In 1994, the French press had a field day speculating on the whereabouts of Gengi, the rare Akhal-Teke stallion that had been given to French president François Mitterrand by the president of Turkmenistan the year before. Mitterrand was put on the spot during a state visit to the Soviet Union when he was asked at a press conference about the gift horse and said that Gengi had been taken to a private stable rather than a state one because he had arrived in France in poor condition after a two-month quarantine in Moscow. The French press started searching for Gengi with particular glee, and the story spread across the Channel. The Independent of London reported that Mitterrand was upset with Elysée Palace staff over leaks about the horse “that had made the presidency look silly.” Finally, the Elysée was forced to produce Gengi at a Paris military barracks for a photo op, which was followed by a champagne reception for reporters. “If only the thoroughbred could tell his own story,” read The Independent. “The daily Libération said it had found Gengi in particularly luxurious surroundings at Souzy-la-Briche, near Paris.”

In fact, Gengi was at the country house where Mitterrand maintained his mistress and illegitimate daughter. That Mitterrand had a second family was widely known among the press but only publicly revealed when both mother and daughter turned up at his funeral procession, in 1996, walking behind his wife and their three sons. In order to know why Gengi became such a big story, the average French reader would have had to be able to decipher the secret code and know where the mistress lived; even today, the ability to decode reporting about high French officials is confined mainly to the intellectual and political elites. “How long does it take for a new foreign correspondent here to figure out what the press is really saying?,” I asked a Parisian journalist friend. “At least six months,” she replied, “and then they always miss bits.”

The French have a long tradition of maintaining the privacy of their heads of state, and laws governing privacy in France are very strict. Today, that tradition is being sorely tested, both by the proliferation of tweets and blogs and by the colorful behavior of France’s First Couple, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his willowy pop-singer bride, Carla Bruni. The center-right Sarkozy is relentlessly pilloried in the mostly left-leaning French press, and he often takes it personally—with reason, some feel. Last January, for example, his arch nemesis, the suave and sophisticated Dominique de Villepin, who once dismissed Sarkozy as having “no interior labyrinth,” was found innocent of charges in what was known as the Clearstream Affair—despite the fact that de Villepin reportedly knew of Sarkozy’s name being added to phony lists of people said to have illegal bank accounts containing kickback money in a Luxembourg bank called Clearstream. Now de Villepin is threatening to run for the presidency in 2012 and could well be a spoiler for Sarkozy. Yet it is Sarkozy himself who usually commits the unforced errors.

From his hasty divorce from his second wife, Cecilia, shortly after his election in 2007, to his three-month courtship of the rich, Italian-born model Carla—who showed the president all the nude pictures of herself on the Internet once they were engaged—he keeps the satirists busy. The well-informed weekly Le Canard Enchaîné’s “Diary of Carla B,” starring Carlita and Chou Chou (Little Cabbage, as she once called Sarkozy), is eagerly looked forward to every Wednesday. But it pales next to Carla et Carlito, La Vie du Château (Life in the Palace), the third in a series of scathing cartoon storybooks about the soap-opera shenanigans going on at the Elysée Palace, where the concept of staying on message has yet to be introduced. The cover of the book portrays Carla in flats, carrying a diminutive, wailing “Sarko” in a front baby sling over a red carpet spread on top of the bodies of various government personalities who are no longer in favor.

Lately, France has been riveted by le scandale des rumeurs. What essentially began as a couple of tweets and blogs from nowheresville, speculating about alleged infidelity on the part of Carla with a fellow pop singer and Sarkozy with a married karate champion and minister of ecology in his government—gossip that had traveled on the Parisian dinner-party circuit for months—suddenly took on grave meaning when Sarkozy’s entourage, egged on by over-the-top tabloid coverage in Britain, declared the rumors were being officially investigated as an attempt to destabilize the French presidency. After the Web editor and a blogger at Le Journal du Dimanche, owned by a pal of Sarkozy’s, mentioned the rumors, they were forced to resign, and a judicial inquiry was requested for “fraudulent entry of data into a computer network.” Those developments gave the up-to-then silent French press the opening it needed to start trumpeting the whole affair: Who had started these calumnies? Carla reportedly called her husband’s ex-sister-in-law to blame her and the ex-justice minister, Rachida Dati, another glamorous female pol, who is the daughter of a Muslim cleaning woman, the mother of a baby whose father is unknown, and a dear friend of Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cecilia. Dati had been mentioned in the past as having had liaisons dangereuses with Sarkozy. Carla reportedly claimed to have texts as proof. Dati, currently a mayor of one of Paris’s 20 arrondissements, had been relieved of her justice post last fall and sent off to serve in the European parliament in Strasbourg, where she was reportedly bored stiff. She was still using her government car to get around Paris, though. Then, on the night of the first round of regional elections on March 14, she was unceremoniously stripped of her Peugeot 607 and bodyguards while on her way to a TV interview; in the following days she heard that she was being bad-mouthed. One of the president’s top aides told a group of her fellow pols that he had proof that she was behind the unfounded nasty tales. What proof? Was she being wiretapped? Meanwhile, another aide suggested that these rumors were a way of trying to damage France as it is about to take over the chair of the G20 nations, in 2011. Things reached such a state that L’Express magazine reported that these revelations by various members of Sarkozy’s entourage—those who met with him every morning at 8:30—were making everyone so nervous that cell-phone batteries were being dumped out of phones before confidential meetings so that their locations could not be detected. To tamp everything down, Sarkozy sent Carla out to declare to a leading French radio station that the rumors had absolutely no basis, that Rachida remained their friend, and that there was no investigation going on. Unfortunately, only a few hours later, Bernard Squarcini, the head of French domestic intelligence, unaware of Carla’s interview, confirmed to a Web site that, yes, there indeed was an investigation, but it was “not illegal and there were no wiretaps.”

Among the high-context items buried in one coded press report was the speculation that in 2014 the wildly ambitious Dati’s toughest opposition in the race for mayor of Paris might just be Chantal Jouanno, the ecology minister whispered to be having the affair with Sarkozy. If she were seen to be a special friend of the president’s, and thus subject to favoritism, she would not be eligible to run. Not a bad bank shot—wrecking the boss and a potential rival at the same time—but it’s only a rumeur.

Like Barack Obama, whom he greatly admires, Sarkozy was elected on a platform of hope and change. His government is credited with formulating policies that shielded France from getting hit as hard as its neighbors by the recent economic downturn. He was an effective and successful president of the European Union last year, and he passed an economic-liberalization bill to ease restrictions on business. Yet he is currently facing a crucial reform of pension laws, including raising the age of retirement in France to above 60, which threatens to cripple the French economy much the way health care threatens the U.S. The aging French population has a 35-hour workweek, frequent strikes, and what appears to be a welfare state it can no longer afford. And while the need for basic reform is widely agreed upon, its implementation is not. On a visit I made to Paris in April, many of the people I spoke with mentioned that the French were naturally pessimistic and that their negative frame of mind impeded progress. (When I interviewed Carla Bruni in 2008, she told me, “The French are Italians in a bad mood.”) But Sarkozy is neither pessimistic nor idle. “We have grave problems and he runs around from one thing to another, trying to chase the wind,” a French cab driver told me. “Carla is a very pretty woman. She can remind you a little bit of Jackie Kennedy. But he can never remind you of J.F.K.!”

Sarkozy’s approval ratings are currently extremely low: below 30 percent. The midterm regional elections in March were a disaster for his center-right party. The Socialists now hold power in every French region except Alsace and Corsica, and Sarkozy is weighing whether or not to run for a second term in 2012—he says he will announce his decision in late summer or early fall. No one seriously believes he will back down without a fight, and according to cynical scuttlebutt frequently repeated by those who know the code, the First Couple will not stay together once he is no longer president. (“They have a contract,” is the refrain. “She must stay with him five years while he is president.”) Even people sympathetic to the president—mostly foreigners—while admitting that Sarkozy is undeniably quick and super-smart, that he has risen against all odds, and that he has appointed many brilliant people, say too that his frenetic character just does not fit with the very style-conscious French: he did not go to the right schools, he’s part Hungarian and part Jewish, he likes money and bling too much, and, worst of all, he unabashedly admires America. The president lives in a palace, they say, and he should act more kingly. On the other hand, the French are fine with aloof intellectual snobs whose limitations are tolerated so long as they remain dignified. The public was totally turned off last fall, for example, when Sarkozy unwisely tried to promote his 23-year-old son, Jean, to a post as head of La Defense, a corporate zone west of Paris. After complaining that his son was being “thrown to the wolves,” the president was forced to back down, and Jean withdrew, leaving a large pool of blood from a totally self-inflicted wound. Canny Carla, who has never failed at anything she has tried, and who continues her recording career and refuses to live at the Elysée, cuts both ways: she is capable of editing a very well-done edition of Madame Figaro magazine, and she is certainly a rampant sex fantasy for many middle-aged males, but to most of the French, a businessman from Lille told me, “Carla is from another planet.”

Michelle Obama might agree. Jonathan Alter, in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, reveals that while hosting the Obamas for dinner in Paris last year, Carla told Michelle that she and Nicolas did not have sex as often as she would like, but that they had once kept a foreign leader waiting for an hour while they finished making love. She asked if Michelle and her husband ever did that. Michelle laughed nervously and said no.

In person, Carla and Sarkozy have undeniable charisma. I watched Sarkozy award Ralph Lauren the Légion d’Honneur at a reception at the Elysée Palace, which Carla did not attend. The reception was followed by a dinner at the American Embassy, hosted by U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin, who used to be the C.E.O. of the Muppets. In front of Karl Lagerfeld, Hubert Givenchy, Alain Delon, and Lauren’s entire family, Sarkozy praised the designer for creating his iconic brand and realizing the American Dream throughout “the entire world.” On the occasion of the opening of a new Ralph Lauren store and restaurant in a beautifully restored 17th-century mansion on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Sarkozy clearly delighted in saying that Lauren was “the son of Jewish Russian immigrants to the U.S., having grown up in the Bronx, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York.” The Polo man is exactly the kind of creator-entrepreneur Sarkozy would love France to have more of. Lauren, in turn, graciously said that, along with Obama, Sarkozy was his hero.

As Sarkozy started working the room, I asked him to be sure to say hello to Carla, whom, I reminded him, I had interviewed two years earlier. “Yes, I call her,” Sarkozy answered in his imperfect English. I know he used to call Cecilia a dozen times an hour, and I am told it is the same with Carla. Sarkozy grew up largely without a father, and he tends to depend on strong women. The feeling appears to be mutual in his current marriage. In her Madame Figaro interview, Carla said that her husband “protects me from the world, from myself, and gives me peace.” A friend of hers told me Carla had been really hurt by the latest scandal. “I despise the use of blogs as credible sources,” She said in Madame Figaro. “It makes a mockery of journalism.” Ten minutes later at the reception, when I bumped into Sarkozy again, I told him Vanity Fair would be pleased to interview him and Carla. “O.K., O.K.!” he answered enigmatically.

At the Elysée were a number of Sarkozy’s gang of advisers, whom Carla once likened to a comedy team on French TV in the 80s. They were banished under Cecilia, made a comeback when she left, and now seem on the verge of being downgraded again. The day before the reception, Le Figaro had reported that only senior advisers of important departments would be present from now on at the 8:30 meetings. But would they stay on message? Is there a message? Like Obama, every time Sarkozy attempts to change or reform, he gets hit with a noisy and determined opposition. Even if most of the French back the recent law prohibiting women from wearing burkas, for example, the ban may be unconstitutional, and it has further alienated a restive population of Muslim immigrants, many of whom can’t find work and live in poverty in public-housing projects. When the Paris airports were closed because of Iceland’s volcanic ash, Sarkozy, who is constantly put down for micro-managing, was criticized for having his ministers handle the situation.

Mitterrand had his own way of dealing with the unpleasant spread of rumors. In 1993, it was revealed that from 1982 to 1986 he had had the police set up an anti-terror cell, secretly run at the highest levels of government, to tap the phones of 5,000 media and political types who knew the code and could pose problems for him, especially about the existence of his second family. Today we have unsubstantiated tweets and blogs that can get the flimsiest gossip to rock the ship of state. In other words, it’s impossible to hide Gengi these days.

correction: An earlier version of this article has been revised to reflect the following editorial errors:

François Mitterrand’s funeral took place in 1996, not 1994. And it was inaccurate to say that Carla Bruni “reportedly had to show the president all the nude pictures of herself on the Internet once they were engaged.” Rather, she told Maureen Orth in a 2008 interview that she had shown the president nude pictures of herself on the Internet.

The article has also been revised to reflect the following:

Rachida Dati is the mayor of one of Paris’s 20 arrondissements, not one of its seven districts, and serves in the European parliament in Strasbourg, not Luxembourg. The midterm regional elections in March were a disaster for President Sarkozy’s center-right party, not his center-right coalition.

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