Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Fascist!"

Christian Estrosi compares Mediapart to the extreme-right gutter press of the 1930s, and Xavier Bertrand, eschewing such historical subtlety, calls the site "fascist." Press historian Christian Delporte looks at the history of scandal-mongering by the French press, in particular the suicides of two ministers, Roger Salengro in 1936 and Pierre Bérégovoy under Mitterrand:

Concernant Salengro, « ce n'est pas comparable » car « il n'y avait pas d'enquête judiciaire, uniquement de la calomnie », rappelle l'historien :
« Là, Mediapart prolonge une enquête judiciaire en interrogeant cette ancienne comptable qui s'est déjà confiée à la police.
De toute façon, à chaque fois qu'un homme politique est atteint personnellement dans une enquête, on sort l'épouvantail Salengro, la calomnie qui finit par détruire un homme et aboutit à son suicide. »
A propos de la mort de Bérégovoy, Christian Delporte trouve aussi la comparaison peu pertinente. Pour deux raisons :
« Dans un cas, il s'agissait d'une affaire de prêt personnel. Dans l'autre, il est question du financement d'un parti politique et d'une éventuelle violation de la loi. Ce n'est pas Woerth en personne, mais le financement de la campagne électorale de tout un parti, l'UMP, et de Nicolas Sarkozy.
A mon sens, Mediapart a fait son métier. On peut aussi rappeler à M. Estrosi que la droite de l'époque avait exploité les articles du Canard Enchaîné sur Bérégovoy. »

When Is a Stable an SME?

Florence Woerth seems to have another problem. She created an enterprise that allows high-rolling society matrons to invest in racehorses--a sort of time-share in horse flesh. And it turns out that this venture is classifed as a small-to-medium enterprise (PME in French), which, thanks to a tax loophole created by Eric Woerth when he was budget minister, allows these investors to claim a tax deduction.

In the land of scandal, when it rains, it pours. All perfectly legal, to be sure. Let's be clear about that. We wouldn't want to be sued for libel. By Monsieur either.

European Banks

Daniel Gros:

But the real problem is that the EU’s banking system is so weakly capitalized that it cannot take any losses, while also being so interconnected that problems in one country quickly put the entire system at risk. Until the banks’ balance-sheet problems are dealt with decisively, financial markets will remain on edge.

Playing the Game

Why has the government's response to the Bettencourt-Woerth affair been so lame? Doesn't anyone know how to play this game? Until now, no one would have accused Sarkozy of lacking mastery of the media. He has been in politics a long time and knows the dynamics of scandal. So when allegations against Woerth first arose, he should have known that it was time for some cold calculations. He knew that Mme Woerth worked for Mme Bettencourt. He would have had his men call in Woerth to find out how deeply she was compromised. He would have learned about the trips to Switzerland. He would have demanded to know what business was transacted. He would have concluded that the patent conflict of interest would not withstand scrutiny, and he would have asked for Woerth's resignation.

Which of the above did he not do? And why not? Did he already know too much about how deeply Woerth was compromised? But even then he should have known that keeping Woerth on would only perpetuate the outcry and spur further investigations. His actions are baffling. But this crisis is coming to a head. With the confirmation today of a large cash withdrawal on precisely the date indicated by Mme Bettencourt's former accountant, questions will have to be answered and cannot be dismissed as "playing into the hands of the extreme right," as François Baroin attempted to do yesterday at the National Assembly, provoking a Socialist walk-out.

The thing to watch now is what those who stand to gain from Sarkozy's fall will do. Baroin--a Chirac protégé--is one of them. His performance yesterday can be seen as a carefully calibrated one. He has demonstrated his loyalty to the power that is but has not compromised himself by denying allegations that he claims to be investigating. Copé, rubbing his hands with glee, has called on the president to explain himself to the French people, while pretending to believe that a perfectly plausible explanation will be available. Raffarin has done the same. Christine Lagarde has called for a clarification of the rules concerning ministerial conflicts of interest. Other potential winners have been very quiet to date: Bruno Lemaire, for example, who is close to Villepin. Jean-Louis Borloo. Hervé Morin. Alain Juppé* joined Hubert Védrine in denouncing the mismanagement of the Quai d'Orsay under Sarkozy--a sign that he stands ready to fill any power vacuum.

A very interesting moment on the Right: le système Sarkozy may be entering its final days. And all because of a disappointed daughter and a disgruntled butler. This saga is the French King Lear: a thankless child attacks a failing parent and a regime totters.

*UPDATE: For example, here's what Juppé is now saying (I skip several paragraphs of langue de bois):

Que faire pour calmer la tourmente politique?
Etablir la vérité, bien sûr, sur toutes les affaires en cours. C’est la mission de la justice.
Retrouver l’élan pour réformer, moderniser, dynamiser. C’est la responsabilité du Président de la République, en charge de l’essentiel.
Et, sans doute, remettre le gouvernement en situation de gouverner, ce qui passe, au moment que le Président jugera opportun, par un profond remaniement mais aussi par un changement de méthode: le Président ne peut et ne doit être en première ligne sur tous les sujets; le gouvernement doit être à la manoeuvre quotidienne, en étroit dialogue avec le Parlement.

In short, "I'm ready, Mr. President. You want somebody to take charge of the front lines and shield you from some of this flak, you have a battle-scarred veteran waiting in the wings. Take me now."

Lost in Translation

The New York Times reports that American restaurant-goers are shocked, shocked to have their wine tasted for them by the sommelier, as if they didn't know their châteaux from Shinola:

Few issues of wine etiquette seem to cause as much consternation as the increasingly common practice of a sommelier taking a small sip of wine, usually unbidden, to test for soundness. Diners often are surprised to learn that their bottle has in effect been shared with the restaurant, even if it’s just the smallest amount.


The practice, which is more common at high-end restaurants with ambitious wine lists, can make diners uncomfortable. Some believe the restaurant may be taking advantage of them by consuming wine that they have bought. Others feel demeaned, that their role of assessing the wine has been usurped.

By way of explanation, the newspaper evokes the tastevin:

“It goes back hundreds of years, when the role of sommeliers was to ensure that kings or royalty didn’t get poisoned,” said Evan Goldstein, a wine educator and former president of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization dedicated to raising the standards of beverage service. “My understanding is that the tastevin was put on a chain and put around the neck of the sommelier exactly for that purpose.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite French associations, la Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. I once dined with a member, who transformed the mundane business of quaffing wine into an Olympian sharing of the nectar of the gods.

No Joy in Mudville

Ain't lookin' good for the home team. Two flash e-mails from Le Monde in quick succession:

Les policiers de la brigade de répression de la délinquance sur la personne (BRDP) ont retrouvé, selon "Le Monde", la trace d'un retrait en espèces de 50 000 euros à l'agence de la BNP, le 26 mars 2007. Une information conforme aux propos tenus par l'ex-comptable de Liliane Bettencourt, Claire Thibout, au site Mediapart.

Le parquet de Nanterre a annoncé avoir ouvert une nouvelle enquête préliminaire de police sur les allégations de l'ex-comptable de Liliane Bettencourt mettant en cause Eric Woerth. Selon Claire Thibout, l'héritière de L'Oréal a financé illégalement la campagne de Nicolas Sarkozy en 2007.