Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guest Post: Sarko's Speech

Here is a special exclusive report direct from the Élysée. It comes from Judah Grunstein, a freelance journalist based in Paris. His news and opinion blog is Headline Junky. Many thanks, Judah.

Nicolas Sarkozy is such a creature of the media that it didn’t surprise me, upon entering the large hall of Elysée Palace where he would soon give a televised address, to find two enormous HD TV screens mounted before the press benches. As if, in the same way that a play-by-play announcer at a sporting event watches the television screen and not the game before him, what matters most when it comes to Sarkozy is not what occurs on the podium little more than twenty feet away, but what “les téléspectateurs” see.

By a twist of fate I was at Elysee Palace not as press but as the guest of an invitee, so we continued past the TV screens into the main hall, and made our way as close to the front of the crowd as possible. We were almost an hour early, and already it took some jostling, but before long we were within fifteen feet of the podium, where a television technician tested the lighting and camera angles.

Around us were gathered “les Forces vives” of France: the captains of industry and union leaders, artists and intellectuals, celebrities and athletes, that drive France. Bernard Thibault and François Chérèque were already there, towards the back of the crowd but directly in line with the podium. Rafaël Ibanez, the captain of this year’s World Cup rugby team, had entered the room ahead of us, and I overheard a rumor that Zidane had arrived through a reserved entrance. There were faces that I recognized from television appearances (journalists and politicians, although the names escaped me) along with loads of military personnel in dress uniforms.

Slowly the Ministers of the Government started trickling in. “Oh, là. Il est coiffé, Borloo,” one of the important men gathered behind me remarked. “C’est du sérieux.” Christine Lagarde and Michel Alliot-Marie shook hands with the roped off audience as they took their places to the side of the podium; Fillon and Bertrand walked by without a glance. Rachida Dati seemed surprisingly small and fragile as she glided by with her eyes glued to the carpet; Bernard LaPorte had such a spring in his step that he almost bounced past, his back straighter than a rule. Soon they were all gathered in an awkward group, like a bunch of honor roll students in front of a school assembly, waiting for the principal.

“Ils auront leurs notes aujourd’hui?” another of the important men joked.

A distinguished older gentleman to my right replied, “Et lui? On lui donne des notes?”

“Tous les cinq ans,” I ventured.

“Tant qu’on a ça, ça ira,” he replied more seriously.

A charming young woman in a military dress uniform, francophone but obviously not French, held out her camera. “Vous pouvez me faire une photo de ces politiciens?”

“Ce ne sont pas des hommes politiques, Madame,” a journalist whose name escapes me corrected her, tongue in cheek. “C’est le gouvernement de la France.”

“Pour l’instant,” I pointed out, to general laughter.

The speech was scheduled to start at 11am. At ten past, the distinguished gentleman to my right brandished his watch. “Ce n’est jamais arrivé avec Monsieur Chirac. En plus, on était assis.” It occurred to me that Monsieur Chirac did not have Carla Bruni sending him text messages, but thought better of mentioning it out loud.

Moments later, the huissier announced “Mesdames et messieurs, le Président de la République,” and Sarkozy took the podium.

The speech itself was one that we’d all heard in one form or another over the past year. He began by rejecting the idea of “des forces vives de la France”, because it implies “des forces mortes”, setting the successful few gathered before him in opposition to all those who simply work hard across the country. The real opposition, as he proceeded to make clear in defending his reform program, is between those who want to work and those who don’t. Between those who want to help people work more and those who want to force them to work less. Between those who want to move forward and those who want to remain stuck in place.

It was a long speech, in a crowded room with no air circulation. Fillon barely bothered to stifle a yawn. Halfway through, someone in the crowd fainted. Sarkozy glanced up but didn’t even pause. When he referred to the group of wheelchair-bound invitees gathered in the front of the audience, expressing his commitment to providing access to education and job opportunities for the handicapped, it was hard not to think of Ségolène Royal’s moment of “colère saine” during their debate, and to wonder what the event might have been like had she managed to win the election.

Significantly it was Borloo, and not Fillon, who was at his side as he worked the crowd on his way out, mimicking Sarkozy’s every nod of the head, every knit brow, every sympathetic frown and every wide smile. Within minutes the crowd, too, had largely wandered out to the reception. Before long there was nothing left but a pocket or two of stragglers, the cameras and the podium. One by one, people stepped up and, using their cell phones, had their picture taken where Sarkozy had addressed “le paysage audio-visuel”. The latest episode of the Sarko Show had come to a close.

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The speech can be viewed here.

President of Europe

Nicolas Sarkozy wants Tony Blair to be the first president of Europe, a post to be created by the Lisbon Treaty. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Édouard Balladur don't. For Giscard the problem is that Blair isn't "in phase with the majority in his own country" and "doesn't belong to a country that respects all European rules." He denies coveting the job for himself--too old, he says.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown seems to be warming toward Europe, taking a broader view than he took as Chancellor whose job of keeping the economy on an even keel would have been made more difficult, presumably, by the need to accommodate the euro. Is it fair to assume that he wouldn't be too keen, either, on seeing his old rival assume the EU chair?

So what's going on? Sarkozy appears to take Blair for a kindred spirit, a master of the media and familiar of the bully pulpit. Like Sarko, he harbors no a priori hostility to the United States--and surely too little suspicion of the American cousins for many of his would-be constituents. Sarko no doubt sees himself and Blair as a mediagenic tandem capable of transforming "Europe" into a foreign-policy megaphone that would amplify the French voice in world affairs.

Blair could be counted on, I imagine, not to meddle in economic matters, which were never to his taste. This perhaps explains why Giscard and Balladur are cool to him. They would prefer an EU president more concerned with imposing fiscal discipline on member countries, as well as someone more independent of the US. And old rancor toward Britain remains.

Will Sarko prevail on this? I think not. He had his way with DSK at the IMF. "Europe" will be reluctant to grant him too many favors, particularly in the wake of Sarkozy's rather impudent statement of his ambitions for France's upcoming presidency of the European Commission: "By the end of the French presidency, I want Europe to have an immigration policy, a defense policy, an energy policy, and an environmental policy." This seems rather an ambitious program for a six-month stint in the post, and it makes rather short shrift of fifty years of European policymaking in these areas. Of course Sarko's prepared text was rather less presumptuous: he spoke only of "progress" in each of these four areas, rather than implying that Europe had been waiting all these years for its messiah. But Sarkozy does of course think of politics as a vocation, and in Tony Blair he sees another illuminato who, like himself, has received the call. In the fusion of their two charismas he sees a bright future for Europe, whereas hors des médias, pas de salut.

From God's Mouth to Your Ears

The most strident, blatant, one-sided, rootin'-tootin' "Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal" case against the welfare state imaginable, brought to you by the Cato Institute--and France is of course the villain of the piece.