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Pity France

Understanding Sarkozy

by EVAN JONES

Dave Lindorff (‘Red-Baiting Hollande’, CounterPunch, 13 June) bemoans the difficulty of getting decent coverage of France in the US media. The problem is pervasive in the English-language media, for which Continental Europe is a foreign planet. France has long been a focal point for condescension, especially from the self-righteous finance media. So how did ‘we’ view the ascendancy of Nicholas Sarkozy to the Presidency? The insufferable Financial Times, in spite of being just across the Channel and with myriad French speakers available, is representative of the ritual demonisation.

For example, Philip Stephens (30 March 2007): “A significant majority in France have remained economically and culturally comfortable in relative decline.” Editorial (8 May 2007): “French voters have given Nicolas Sarkozy a thumping mandate to lead them out of genteel decline.” Christopher Caldwell (Weekly Standard denizen and guest FT columnist, 26 July 2008): “In the course of about 72 hours this week, in the most reform-resistant country in the west, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France accomplished more than his two gifted predecessors …”.

Then there’s the wretched Economist. The Economist’s Charlemagne (27 August 2011): “The oddity is that almost everywhere the European left is in decline. … Yet France’s Socialist Party also stands out as Europe’s most unreconstructed. Hence the contorted spectacle of a party preparing for power at a time when the markets are challenging its every orthodoxy.” After the spectacle of the Global Financial Boom and Crisis and its crushing contemporary burden, this bizarrely respected rag still grants intelligence and legitimacy to ‘the markets’.

The March 2007 Stephens article was atypically astute. All ‘sensible’ people will support the Sarkozy candidacy. Albeit, they have “a rather exaggerated view of Mr Sarkozy’s commitment to liberal market economics”. Impure as he is, he’s our best hope to “re-energise the process of reform of Europe’s economies.” “Finally, and to my mind most importantly, is the perception that Mr Sarkozy would refurbish relations with the US.” Read: bring France back into NATO and join the Anglo-American imperial embrace. Sarkozy was thus ‘our’ man to clear out the French cobwebs and stamp out the residual Gaullist antipathy to Atlanticism. The British political class and media were of one voice.

It’s not as if Sarkozy was hiding his character. It’s true, he offered up the requisite sacrificial lambs to his Anglo (and Brusselian) task masters – retirement and pension access, the 35-hour week, the education and health budgets, etc. But he was unapologetic about his ‘impurities’. During his candidature and beyond he attacked the European Central Bank for its myopic monetary policy. As President, Sarkozy championed the cause of ‘national champions’ for the maintenance of French industrial survival.

These and related views constituted heavy duty sins. There was also Sarkozy’s hyperactive lack of dignity (the ‘bling’ factor) as befits his high office, which the media occasionally accurately labelled to maintain its distance. But the Anglo financial media spent the five years of Sarkozy’s incumbency supporting him while trying to bring him into line. He’s a naughty boy, but he’s our boy; if only he’d come to the party. Thus passed over five years of ‘expert’ commentary on Sarkozy’s leadership.

But then, what’s this then? The 31 March issue of Marianne offered the reader a 40 page investigation of the Sarkozy Presidency, written mostly by Mediapart journalists. Marianne is a left-leaning if iconoclastic weekly magazine, published since 1997. Mediapart is an online daily outlet of opinion and investigative reporting, begun in 2008. Both organisations are a product of journalists’ dissatisfaction with the French media.

Titled ‘La République Scandaleuse’, the Marianne/Mediapart account is an indictment of the quinquennat, exposing the perennial abuse of power and the systemic degradation of the machinery of state.  Connecting the issues is the doings of a select circle around Sarkozy. Some key dimensions?

* The two (traditionally conservative) savings banks networks, the Caisses d’épargne and the Banques populaire, via a top-down enforced cultural transformation, raced into the maelstrom of speculative mania and lost billions. Innocent bystanders bore the costs. A French variation on a familiar theme. The two networks survive as an entity merged in 2009, but their character has been irreversibly marred. This story deserves a separate account.

* Four arms contracts concluded in 1994 (sale of submarines to Pakistan, sale of frigates and their armament to Saudi Arabia, repair of existing Saudi frigates) were used to siphon off commissions, totaling €82.6 million. Édouard Balladur is Prime Minister; his protégé Sarkozy is Budget Minister. Ziad Takieddine, Abdul Rahman el-Assir were key intermediaries, with Thierry Gaubert (employed in Sarkozy’s Ministry) onboard. Sarkozy allegedly authorised the process, for the purpose of funding Balladur’s candidacy for the Presidency in 1995. Mediapart calls this affair a ‘noiseless break-in of the state’, which only first came to light in the anti-terrorist investigation of the May 2002 suicide bombing assassination in Karachi of 14 people, including 11 French engineers associated with the Pakistani submarine contract.

*Bernard Tapie, wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, became in July 2008 the beneficiary of the tidy sum of €403 million from the public purse (Tapie garnishing, after taxes, etc., over €300 million). The saga begins in 1990 when wannabe Tapie buys majority control of iconic but struggling Adidas. From the start out of his depth, between bouts of being in court or in prison, Tapie wants to simultaneously effect a high-level political career (on the Left!). A substantial offer having fallen through, Tapie agrees to sell Adidas in 1993 to a consortium including the state-owned Crédit Lyonnais. Tapie’s modus operandi was the law of the jungle and he, for once, found himself as the prey. Sore loser, his new friendship with the President has Sarkozy’s Economy/Finance Minister (one Mme Lagarde) channel the longstanding dispute between Tapie and the state into private arbitration (contrary to advice), which delivered the mega-millions bounty. Amongst other ingredients, one of the three arbiters, supposedly above reproach, had had a long profitable relationship with Tapie’s lawyer. One of the more preposterous dimensions facilitating the generous payout was the proposition that the judicial impasse meant that Tapie was potentially eligible for compensation at the then entire value of Adidas, roughly of the order of €3 billion. When the French authorities belatedly crank up an investigation into the Tapie affair in 2011, Mme Lagarde is overnight dispatched from France to head the International Monetary Fund, just in time for her to dispense homilies that indigent Greeks should eat cake.

* The declining years of Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, have witnessed an unsavoury fight over her fabulous wealth. But taped interviews by a staffer made public in 2010 have turned a family tragedy into an affair of state. It turns out that Mr Sarkozy has been relieving Mme B of some of her excess baggage to help finance costly election battles. Her husband, André (who died in November 2007), had been well known for his political largesse. Myriad personnel in the sometime employ of Mme B have confirmed the secretive arrangements. French law stipulates that donations to political parties cannot exceed €7,500. Given that donor names are not made public, various ruses have been employed to disguise the sources and disguise the end beneficiary – in the latter case often via the creation of personal political ‘micro-parties’. Eric Woerth, Sarkozy’s suitably placed Budget Minister (the junior Finance Ministry) and UMP Party Treasurer, played a key intermediary role. More, investigative journalists have had their phone records obtained by Intelligence (courtesy of an obliging service provider) and had their property burgled. Subsequently an Intelligence chief (Bernard Squarcini) and a public prosecutor (Philippe Courroye), both near to Sarkozy, were indicted for complicity. Sarkozy had restructured the Intelligence Services to establish essentially a Pretorian Guard, employed in the service of Sarkozy’s personal ambitions, but Squarcini remained in office until replaced by the incoming Hollande administration. Courroye had been placed by Sarkozy (against advice) as prosecutor at Nanterre, seat of the richest department in France (Hauts-de-Seine), from where (claims Mediapart) he incarnates a caricature of justice to order – weak with the powerful and implacable with the lowly. The case against Corroye has since been lost on appeal.

* Ziad Takieddine returns to the corridors of power in 2002, courtesy of Sarkozy’s new status as Interior Minister (in the Raffarin government). Takieddine subsequently becomes a key intermediary in the rapprochement with Gaddafi regime, peaking in 2005. Gaddafi was to be the beneficiary of French security systems and armaments and the Sarkozy camp was to be the beneficiary of even more generous funding for Sarkozy’s Presidential campaign. President Chirac appears to have been out of the loop. An earlier Sarkozy/Takieddine proposed deal, in 2003, to sell security systems to Saudi Arabia (with a secret mega-commission in tow) was stymied by Chirac’s intervention. Mediapart notes that the Takieddine affair touches the first Presidential circle. Amongst others, Takieddine involved Claude Guéant (then bureau chief in Sarkozy’s Interior Ministry), Thierry Gaubert (long time administrator to Sarkozy) and Brice Hortefeux, all of whom also socialised with Takieddine. Takieddine evidently entertains lavishly. Mediapart estimates Takieddine’s wealth at €40 million (a divorce suit from his ex-wife is exposing details), and claims that he paid no tax on either income or assets in the decade after 2000. In early March 2011 (with the France-led invasion imminent), Takieddine left Libya with a tidy €1.7 million in cash, the sum discovered by French Customs on his re-entry. Takieddine had lifted his game from when he was stopped in July 1994, returning from one of his many trips to money-laundering-friendly Switzerland, with a mere 500,000 francs under his seat.

* The aforesaid Thierry Gaubert was indicted in 2008 for embezzlement. While working for Sarkozy when the latter became Mayor of Neuilly in 1984, Gaubert created a ‘comité interprofessionel du logement’ to manage ‘1% logement’ funds collected in the Hauts-de-Seine department. This program was created in 1953, in the context of housing shortages, whereby private firms with more than 10 employees would pay 1% of their wages bill to finance worker housing (after 1992, half the contribution would be replaced by public funding). Gaubert and associates were accused of devoting funds to housing projects in which Gaubert had a personal stake, with the embezzlement of the order of €25 million. The group were also accused of enjoying lavish ‘working’ conditions at CIL expense. In May 2012, Gaubert was given a mild slap on the wrist with a suspended prison sentence and a minor fine, the prosecutor claiming that what Gaubert did was certainly immoral but not illegal!

* Meanwhile Sarkozy found time to pursue Dominique de Villepin, his Prime Minister (2005-07) and intra-party rival for the 2007 Presidency, through the courts for allegedly knowingly tolerating the circulation of a document that named Sarkozy as a recipient of illicit funds from abroad. The presumed vehicle was an inter-bank clearing house called Clearstream, subsidiary of Deutsche Börse, owner of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Villepin was acquitted in January 2010, then acquitted again after being pursued anew in an appeal court, in September 2011. Thus was Villepin safely marginalised as Sarkozy reached the pinnacle of political achievement.

In the Presidency (according to Le Canard Enchainé), Sarkozy’s declared wealth grew from €2.14 million to €2.74 million, in spite of a costly divorce. This growth was helped along by a self-granted immediate salary rise from €100,000 to €240,000 (while of course enjoying free board at the Élysée). It was also helped along by Sarkozy’s purchase of an apartment in Neuilly in 1997 (for the franc equivalent of €876,000). He acquired the place at substantial discount and obtained a substantial loan from persons unknown, details murky courtesy of the administration of Philippe Courroye. Sarkozy sold the apartment in 2006 for €2 million.

How then to characterise Sarkozy? In February, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Ayrault government Minister, characterised the then President as a blend of Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, with the ideological void of one and the methodical brutality of the other. Touché (add that Berlusconi and Sarkozy have another trait in common).

But for a forensic analysis of the ex-President one defers to an article in Marianne, issue 14 April 2007, written by the magazine’s co-founder Jean-François Kahn. Said Kahn, one can’t pin an ideological line on him (‘neoliberal’, ‘neo-con’?). Referring to a book just published, favourable but telling (Catherine Nay, ‘L’Impétueux’), Kahn sees an extraordinary psychological portrait. The only thing that Sarkozy cares about is himself, his own saga, and his obsessive quest for power. Hence Sarkozy’s attempted destruction of all his perceived competitors and detractors (the latter including journalists). His own political colleagues, and even his sympathisers, were well aware of this temperament. He is not able to help himself, they say. Said Kahn, vote for this man if you must but he embodies fraud, criminality and moral bankruptcy. The French will live to regret it. Evidently not enough people read Marianne. Although (according to Wikipedia), this particular issue doubled the normal sales of Marianne to 500,000, Sarkozy romped in against Ségolène Royal with 53% of the second round vote.

The racaille (Sarkozy, November 2005), it appears, are not merely in the banlieues but in and around the Élysée itself. In November 2007, another riot broke out in the northern Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, following the death of two adolescents. Said Sarkozy, there’s no room for angelisme (naive optimism) here – this is voyoucratie (mob rule) pure and simple, and it needs to be met with harsh measures. Voyoucratie is a marvellous word, and it is readily applicable to the man himself and his entourage. French voters have just seen off a hoodlumocracy that has converted the Gaullist l’État, c’est moi into l’État, c’est pour moi.

But back to our cherished Anglo media. The American Christopher Caldwell calls France ‘the most reform-resistant country in the west’. But France has been implementing ‘neoliberal’ policies (i.e. Anglo ‘reform’) almost continuously since 1983, and on a bipartisan basis. And much of it has proved counterproductive. But Caldwell et. al. evidently don’t know and don’t care. Caldwell’s attribution is more accurately directed at his own country, where the impasse in the face of political, economic and social dysfunctionality is absolute.

As for Sarkozy, the more self-conscious Financial Times quietly gave up on him. It devoted the lead-up to the Presidential election to hectoring the likely incumbent with the same old catechisms. The Economist, acknowledging Sarkozy’s flaws, was unrepentant (28 April): “… if we had a vote on May 6th, we would give it to Mr Sarkozy – but not on his merits, so much as to keep out [the rather dangerous] Mr Hollande.”

We delude ourselves with our expectations. The Anglo mainstream media on France is rather referring self-referentially to Anglo-America or, more accurately, to Anglo-America’s official conception of itself – an entirely different animal. When the Anglo media learns to more accurately describe and evaluate its own backyard, it might then turn its attention to France and other alien entities. But don’t hold one’s breath.

Ultimately, Anglo-America held its nose on the Sarkozy Presidency. Our own man has been a very naughty boy. But Sarkozy brought recalcitrant France back into NATO (2009), and he oversaw the obliteration of our nemesis in Libya. And do we really care whether the French economy succeeds or fails? On balance, a favourable outcome. And we can continue to take pleasure in treating France as an object of pity.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist at Sydney University. He can be reached at: evan.jones@sydney.edu.au