Sarkolatry & Shakeups
February 2, 2009
France is indeed a pleasant place, "a perfect hexagon," as French school children were once taught. Within its six glorious sides all needs and desires can be met. The friend who recounted this lesson of her education in the 1960s said there was no instruction about what the rest of the world thought of the Hexagon. The preoccupation was strictly franco-français.
But everything changes. The world gets smaller, borders get fuzzier, and now, the preoccupation of the No. 1 Frenchman is a question addressed to the world at large: "m'as-tu vu?"
My French tutor of long ago is the only person other than myself whom I ever heard use the expression-she to teach it, and me to demonstrate that I was a m'as-tu-vu. When I did say it, talking to French friends, I had to spell the phrase and then explain it. And my accent isn't all that bad. I could have sent my companions to the dictionary, where the definition, in English, is simply "show-off". In French it is more nuanced of course. Here's my translation: "a pretentious person who tries to prove himself, or to make himself noticed."
Are we talking about Nicolas Sarkozy? Well, who else? What other No. 1 Frenchman is there? Monsieur le Président continues to cut a wide swath (across the world economic disaster), to occupy a lot of terrain (from the Caucasus to Syria and Egypt), to redefine capitalism (laissez-faire NOT) and above all to return France to the forefront of activist international ambitions.
France's six-month turn at the helm of the European Union was very much Sarkozy's tour de force. He made the circus his own and he filled all three rings. Challenged by several major international crises, his presidency was widely judged a success. Even in the eyes of his fiercest detractors, Sarkozy was a star. (Okay, there was the observation from Dominique de Villepin that Sarkozy is only hyperactive, not at all effective. But understand the context: Villepin, the poet with the wavy gray hair, faces criminal charges of abuse of power: while prime minister under former President Jacques Chirac, it is alleged, he launched a witch hunt against Sarkozy, an old adversary in their same center-right party. In an oblique response, Sarkozy said he'd rather be considered an omniprésident than a do-nothing king.)
Sarkozy may have dazzled as a crisis manager, but he didn't make himself any more sympathetic. French reporters who cover him talk of his "culte de la personnalité." Le Figaro, which cannot be trumped in Sarkolatry, leapt at reporting Villepin's biting but well-considered comments.
The newsweekly Le Point started the new year with a cover portraying Sarko as "Nicolas Bonaparte," crowned with a bicorne, and mildly mocked his Napoleonic traits. "One doesn't know whether to call him Nicolas Bonaparte or Napoléon Sarkozy," the cover story said, but when it comes to the president and the emperor "there is a kind of mimicry, for better or worse".
It's easy to make fun of Sarkozy. He's intemperate and narcissistic, undisciplined and self-obsessed. He's both relentless and unfocused. He's also short and his shoes look as if they have two-inch heels. But in Le Point's comparisons there are frankly some absurd reaches. Napoleon's Egyptian campaign and Sarkozy's vacation with his soon-to-be wife Carla Bruni last year in the Valley of the Kings? Hmmph. Journalism should be made of more insightful stuff.
The comparison to Napoleon-certainly not unique to Le Point at the moment- poses a big question. Wasn't there more to the Corsican than a funny hat and a hand-on-belly pose? What about the greatness and the glory? France has more streets named for 19th-century Socialist politician Jean Jaurès than for Napoleon (I know of only that one route leading from the Mediterranean shore north to Grenoble, marking his return from Elba in 1815). But Jean Jaurès is only one of many illustrious citizens enshrined in the Panthéon, while the singular gilt and porphyry of Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides suggests that the French officially think he was pretty hot stuff. Are the mocking comparisons between le président and l'empereur leading up to something? A Place Sarkozy like the Place Charles de Gaulle? A monument on every tourist's must-see list? Or am I missing the point that his critics dislike him so much they would merely like to see him buried?
Relishing the international accolades for his activist and challenging six months as head of the EU, Sarkozy stepped back into his primary role as France's president with two actions that promise to change French history.
Undoing a legal procedure that began under the Napoleonic Code, Sarkozy decreed the end of les juges d'instruction, or les petits juges, as they are known with no affection. These officials are comparable in some ways to district attorneys in American jurisprudence, but with considerably more inquisitional power. They can place wiretaps, conduct searches and seizures, and coerce testimony. They can also arrange to have a suspect locked up indefinitely while they build a case against him. The juge d'instruction is supposed to simultaneously lead the investigation into possible criminal acts and protect the rights of the accused. The conflict is obvious.
One of Sarkozy's justifications for the highly controversial decree is that France needs to move toward an Anglo-Saxon model, specifically on habeas corpus protection, which is the very basic right not to be imprisoned arbitrarily. There have been some notorious examples of incompetence by les petits juges, most notably in a spurious pedophile case in the Pas de Calais, a fogbound département in France's far north. During the investigation in the 1990s, no fewer than 18 people were jailed without trial for up to three years. All the convictions were eventually overturned, and the juge d'instruction himself now faces judicial action.
It was one of the worst outrages ever in contemporary French jurisprudence and led not just to dismissal of charges but an abject apology by Jacques Chirac, who was then president.
So getting rid of the faulty system sounds noble, right? The problem is that Sarkozy left a big flank exposed by including no provisions for assuring the independence of the judiciary. And one area in which les petits juges have been effective has been a whole series of inquests in the 1990s into the suspect ways in which political parties were financed-which turned out to be basically a system of kickbacks. The inquests produced marquee convictions and put an end to a system that was corrupt but had been enthusiastically embraced by all political parties.
Sarkozy's second Hexagon-jolting decision was the first step in ending all advertising on public television channels. Sarkozy had warned that it was coming, but the warning itself was a major surprise. The first tranche of eliminating the ads, between 8 pm and 6 am, fell with a thud. The elimination is to be complete in two more years.
The stated goal is for there to be, somewhere among the five public channels, something as good as the BBC. Ahem! Or is it to funnel all advertising revenue to the private channel owned by Sarkozy's friends? Or is it to punish the (mostly anti-Sarkozy) news departments of the public channels? Everyone has an explanation, and most of them are Sarkophobic. Of course. But no one expects to see the BBC-which itself has financial problems-recreated on this side of the Channel.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of France Today.
France Today magazine. A unique insider’s perspective on French travel,
culture, real estate and much more. Subscribe today.