Trouble in Sarkozy’s France .. and Cadman, Carey, Desmarais, Dion, Theodore Zeldin?

Feb 29th, 2008 | By | Category: Countries of the World

Someone at the office here just told about how his psychic political wife was a big Stephane Dion supporter back at the Liberal Party of Canada’s Montreal leadership convention, late in 2005. But now in early 2008 she has definitively concluded she made a big mistake. Dion’s latest crying wolf on a fresh election, she thinks, has finished him as any kind of credible leader. I don’t know that I quite believe this yet myself. A week can be a long time in politics, etc, etc. (Just ask Dona Cadman, whose story about how the Harper Conservatives tried to “entice” her late great husband may yet save the Dion Liberals?) Dion’s troubles have nonetheless helped push me towards the very vaguely related problems of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Canada’s other European mother country across the seas. My side trip here has also shed slight further light on Canadian billionaire Paul Desmarais, and “France’s favourite Englishman,” Theodore Zeldin. And don’t ask how Mariah Carey’s new video “Touch My Body finally completes the picture. But trust me: you’ll be glad it does.

1. Sarkozy, Harper, Dion … and Afghanistan …

In some ways of course the more obvious Canadian-politician analogue for Nicolas Sarkozy is Stephen Harper, not Stephane Dion. Both Harper and “Sarko” are figures of the right, bent on reforming what they see as excessively statist left-wing regimes headed for big trouble. Except that in Canada’s case the traditionally Liberal centrist federal governments in Ottawa have been “excessively statist left-wing” only in the bedtime delusions of neo-con juvenilles …

What gives the analogy between Sarko and Dion some secondary weight is that both of them are more obvious creations of contemporary francophone culture than Harper – and are currently suffering from bouts of political unpopularity in a way that continues to elude Mr. Harper (whose main problem with the big public still seems to be that most of his fellow Canadians have no feelings about him at all?) …

Why is Sarko in so much trouble? In an article headlined “Sarkozy sorry for trading insults. Or is he?,” the February 27 edition of The Independent in the UK explained that “President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted publicly yesterday that he was wrong to trade insults with a bystander at an agricultural show at the weekend. Or rather, he did not.” The article went on to clarify how: “In the past four months, M. Sarkozy has slid from a poll rating in the mid 60s to only 37 per cent. In another part of yesterday’s interview, the President said that he intended to ignore the polls and continue his hyperactive’ approach to his job … Without a hyperactive President, France will never change,’ he said. I don’t care about the next opinion poll… I just want people to be able to say at the end of my five years, that he prepared France to face the challenges of the world.'”

No one would accuse any Canadian politician of being “hyperactive” right now. But for a very brief moment this week it did seem that President Sarkozy’s France might be about to help Canada out with more troops in Afghanistan. On February 26 the Globe and Mail in Toronto reported with some excitement: “France to send troops into Afghan combat: Le Monde.” But the excitement did not last long. Early on the morning of February 27 the same Canadian newspaper was reporting: “Sarkozy wants troops deployed with U.S. in Afghanistan … France suggests sending forces to the east, not the south with Canadians.”

(O well. France never has paid much attention to the “few acres of snow” that Voltaire once dismissed Canada as – even when it was a French colony. Understandably, it is America that M. Sarkozy finally wants to serve beside! But don’t give up altogether yet. The Globe and Mail reports as well that: “However, the eastern plan, if adopted by Mr. Sarkozy, could still aid the Canadians. According to French reports, his staff is discussing a plan whereby perhaps 1,000 French troops would go to eastern Afghanistan to replace U.S. forces there, who in turn would be moved to Kandahar to fight alongside the Canadians, thus fulfilling Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s demand for more NATO forces there. [And if you believe all this actually means anything real, you probably think Canada does have a sensible Afghanistan policy too … ])

Finally here, for a further taste of Sarko’s hyperactivity lately, consider these recent headlines: “French President Visits Chad as Rights Groups Urge Pressure on Chadian Leader“; “Sarkozy pressures SocGen chief to quit” ; “Sarkozy cuts short his stay with Queen” ; and “US Jewish group praises Sarkozy’s innovative’ Holocaust education proposal.”

2. Tim King’s France Profonde blog … and Paul Desmarais – Sarkozy’s real Canadian connection

You can only learn so much from newspaper articles. In searching for deeper intelligence on just what M. Sarkozy is up to in France today, I stumbled across the Englishman Tim King’s France Profonde column/blog in something called Prospect magazine: “The France Profonde column in Prospect Magazine was born four years ago, but I’d wanted to write about France ever since I moved here many years before that – to show France from another angle, through English eyes, unavoidably, but if I could, and with my French family, closer to the French.”

This did shed some further light on Sarkozy’s current troubles. On February 8, e.g., M. King was writing: “Christine Lagarde, the Minister of the Economy, apparently handed in her resignation on Wednesday, but Nicolas Sarkozy refused it … Mme Lagarde is said to be utterly fed-up with the President’s contradictions’ … There is a growing feeling, reflected on the radio this morning, that things are falling apart. I think most of that is press hype, but it is feeding off a real feeling of disillusion amongst a growing number of people. Yesterday a woman interviewed said We didn’t elect him so he could enjoy himself, but to get France back on its feet.'”

On February 12 M. King reported on some minor political blood-letting in a place called Neuilly – “a well-heeled suburb of Paris” where “Nicolas Sarkozy began his extraordinary, ambition-driven career” a few decades ago now, when he “was elected mayor.” The current blood-letting involves conflict over who will dominate Neuilly today. To start with, there is “the dashingly handsome David Martinon,” who “rocketed into public view as Sarkozy’s campaign director during the presidential election campaign last year,” but is said to be “close to Sarkozy’s second wife Cecilia” (from whom Sarkozy recently parted in an apparently bitter divorce). Then there is “Jean Sarkozy, the ruler’s 21 year old son by a first marriage. Although brought up largely in Corsica, he could be seen as Neuilly natural. His father put him to work alongside David Martinon in the Neuilly campaign. Right from the start it went wrong.” Soon enough: “The son of the first wife was putting spokes in the wheel of the second wife’s favourite.”

Tim King goes on to explain that: “One can of course pooh-pooh the whole thing as a piece of ephemeral theatre. But like any good sub-plot it echoes in a minor-key all the elements of the main story: the ruler’s attempt to control everything, even who is to be mayor of a Paris suburb. The anger that control engenders in people, and when things unravel Sarkozy is fast-vanishing dust in the middle-distance (a family trait: his son Jean allegedly has the same tendency on his motor-bike). The influence of his court, of his three wives to whom, paradoxically for a control-freak, he seems to capitulate easily. And finally the bloody despatch of a key member of the ruler’s team – for David Martinon will, I fear, be swiftly followed by others and, as in any good Jacobean drama, we will soon see a stage littered with corpses.”

You might say, again, back in Canada all this is almost certainly more reminiscent of Prime Minister Stephen Harper than of current Official Opposition Leader Stephane Dion. (Well, not the part about the three wives, certainly – but “the ruler’s attempt to control everything,” etc.)

Reading on, I discovered some further revelations more directly related to our Canadian home and native land, in Tim King’s report for February 18: “Sarkozy is clearly influenced by foreigners’ to a far greater degree than his predecessors: as well as the rag-bag of American influences, Rue 89 yesterday gave a fascinating insight into the close links with Canadian billionaire Paul Desmarais, and not just financial: in 1995 when Sarkozy was rejected and reviled by mainstream French politicians, traversing what he likes to call the desert, a man invited me into his family in Quebec. We spent hours walking through the woods and he told me: “You’ve got to stick in there, you will get there, we must build a strategy for you.”‘ On Sunday [February 17] Sarkozy rewarded Desmarais with France’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur, saying: If I am president today it is partly thanks to the advice of Paul Desmarais.'”

3. Theodore Zeldin – Sarkozy’s guru from the UK?

All too many years ago now I bumped into the literally beautiful writing of Theodore Zeldin – who was then the most interesting English (or UK) historian of modern France. In the midst of my current probe of President Sarkozy and his troubles, I suddenly wondered what had happened to Mr. Zeldin. And this was heightened by some further remarks in Tim King’s France Profonde column/blog (again for February 12):

I like what Theodore Zeldin, a British member of Jacques Attali’s committee on making France more competitive, told the FT at the weekend:

He [Zeldin] is enthusiastic about the possibilities for change but expresses frustration with the commission’s intensely technical discussions of subjects and the cobwebs of laws and regulations preventing new initiatives. “The tendency of experts is to fiddle around with their expertise rather than trying to find new solutions,” he says.

His solutions are far more radical: founding new towns with affordable housing near the coast that can draw food, energy and water from the sea; posting school teachers to foreign countries for a year to experience different cultures; inviting the world’s 100 richest people to the Elysee Palace and asking them to create a global university.

In reforming France, or any other country, Zeldin argues it is vital to avoid, rather than provoke, confrontation. It is better to allow old problems to wither while encouraging new possibilities to emerge alongside.”

But tragically such fresh ideas are shoved aside in what is fast becoming a tale of unbridled personal ambition and bloody revenge.

This item in fact quotes from “Lunch with the FT: Theodore Zeldin,” by John Thornhill, and published in the February 9 Financial Times out of London, as part of a regular series of “Lunch with” columns by the same author (or so it seems). And for a capsule summary of just who the (now 75-year-old) Theodore Zeldin is, I can do no better than quote Mr. Thornhill: “Few people are better qualified to interpret France than my guest, Theodore Zeldin, the British historian, philosopher and business lecturer, who has spent his life marinating in French history and culture … Zeldin is widely regarded as France’s favourite Englishman. He knows us better than we know ourselves,’ gushed one reviewer of The French, his quirky biography of a nation.”

I see from my wristwatch that I don’t have much more time for Zeldin here. I should perhaps quickly clarify his relationship to Sarkozy these days. Most exactly, he is the only British subject appointed to President Sarkozy’s “Attali commission, chaired by Jacques Attali, the socialist intellectual and former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which last month submitted 316 recommendations to reform France … Zeldin had particular responsibility for changing mentalities, which he says will be vital in pursuing fundamental reform.” (As far as exactly what “changing mentalities” means, your guess is as good as mine!)

Two more quick points. First, back last May, when Sarkozy was still campaigning against the quite attractive lady Socialist Segolene Royal for the job of President of France, Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor quoted Zeldin on the nature of the contest: “What is France?’ is the main question in this election. It brings two profound political strains to a head, says … historian Theodore Zeldin – two different ideas about what politics is about. [Ms.] Royal sees it as about empathy, relationships, compassion. [Mr.] Sarkozy represents authority, competition, and hard work.'”

Second, at the end of his recent Financial Times lunch, John Thornhill asked Zeldin what he thinks of President Sarkozy now: “Zeldin says he cannot claim to understand the man having met him only twice, but sees him very much in the tradition of de Gaulle. Reading Sarkozy’s writings, Zeldin is struck by the importance the president attaches to his formative years, growing up in an immigrant family, being deserted by his [Hungarian] father, being desperate for friendship and affection. He is very devoted to France but he also says that the mission of France is to be a reconciler of cultures. Abroad, he wants to make France the kind of country it was in the 18th century, when its originality was that it made a declaration of rights for all humanity,’ he says … That, I think, is the strong point of France, which makes it an important country. France is an idea. It is not a territory. It is offering a dream that is different from the American dream. There is no harm in having several different dreams in the world.'”

4. The Sarkozy who loves American culture … touching Mariah Carey’s multiracial body in Barak Obama’s USA today …. and the memories of the late great Chuck Cadman that may finally save Stephane Dion, back home in the true north strong and free?

Strangely enough (or perhaps even quite logically?) Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant who has now become President of the Fifth French Republic, has also confessed his fondness for the culture back in the homeland of the American dream itself. (“Sarkozy is said to love’ American culture, and even met with Tom Cruise [whom he regards as a great actor’] during the American’s recent trip to Paris.”)

You might agree that Sarkozy has a point, if you take just a moment to listen to Mariah Carey’s new video “Touch My Body” – in which this melodious icon of contemporary American culture “cavorts with an unlikely suitor: Jack McBrayer – also known as 30 Rock‘s gloriously naive Kenneth the Page. He plays off that character in this clip, where he’s cast as a computer-nerd-turned-love-god who visits Carey’s mansion for a hardware emergency … The pair have a pillow fight, shoot laser guns, race toy cars and stroll alongside a unicorn.” (At one point Ms. Carey also sings “Let me rub my face around your waist.” And you might guess that even President Sarkozy could not deny her that – even allowing for his own new third wife, the 40-year-old Italian-born “Carla Bruni, a model-turned-singer.”)

Not everyone who marvels at her blond goddess physique is aware that Ms. Carey has a “multiracial” background, as “the third child of black/Hispanic aeronautical engineer Alfred Carey and Irish opera singer/voice coach Patricia Hickey.” This gives her things in common with Barack Obama, who currently aspires to be President of the United States of America, whose dream is of course the real American dream. And it was unhappily sobering to read in the Los Angeles Times on February 27 that: “As he emerges from a sometimes-bitter primary campaign, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain poses a stiff challenge to either of his potential Democratic opponents in the general election, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found … The findings underscore the difficulties ahead for Democrats as they hope to retake the White House during a time of war, with voters giving McCain far higher marks when it comes to experience, fighting terrorism and dealing with the situation in Iraq.”

Finally, however, there may be some signs of light at the end of the tunnel for Stephane Dion, back in the few acres of snow on the northern border of the American dream. On this very morning of Friday, February 29 (and good riddance to a very cold month up here), the usually circumspect Globe and Mail of Toronto reports: “The voice on the scratchy tape is unmistakably Stephen Harper’s … It was as unmistakable as his concern that the tape’s contents might one day be made public. Mr. Harper interrupted a B.C. reporter in 2005 when asked about allegations his party had offered financial enticements to a dying MP to win his support on a critical vote … This is not for publication?’ Mr. Harper asked Tom Zytaruk … He was told that the interview was intended as fodder for a biography of Chuck Cadman, the late MP from Surrey, B.C. … But the ensuing two minutes, 21 seconds of audio raise questions about apparent discrepancies between what the Prime Minister said Thursday [February 28, in the Canadian House of Commons] and what Mr. Harper himself said on the tinny tape more than two years ago.”

It may all finally prove just another tempest in an etc, etc for Prime Minister Harper. He is a clever man. And he may well be able to come up with some explanation for the “apparent discrepancies” that will satisfy we the Canadian people. (Or at least enough of us to keep him in office in our rather crazy current democratic federal political system: remember he is prime minister now because only just over 36% of us voted for him in the last election.)

On the other hand, those who live by the sword, etc, etc. It was a to no small extent phony scandal that finally gave the Harper Conservatives their current minority government in Ottawa. It would at least be a kind of poetic justice if they finally lost it to another to no small extent phony scandal. Though it certainly would be nice if our politicians started to debate some of Canada’s real problems. And it might make our politics almost as interesting as President Sarkozy in France.










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