Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wine Politics

The NY Times has an interesting piece on the state of the French wine industry by the novelist William Boyd.

Candid Camera on Dati

As a supplement to Éloi Laurent's guest post on Rachida Dati, I offer the following video:

Note that this was shot on February 28, 2007, well before the election. It shows Bruno Julliard in conversation with Rachida Dati at the Hôtel Lutétia. Julliard is of course the president of the student union UNEF. It seems that his cordial relations with the Sarkozy camp predated the previously mentioned lunch with Sarkozy at which differences over university reform were ironed out. In this clip he is shown jocularly addressing Mme Dati as Madame la Ministre, indicating that he was in little doubt as to the outcome of the election. A third person, unknown to me, asks, "Minister of what?" Mme Dati, in a lighthearted mood, responds by suggesting, "Ministre de la rénovation urbaine à coup de Kärcher" Then she notices the camera.

I had stumbled on this video some time ago but hesitated to post it. I'm of two minds about the YouTube-DailyMotion phenomenon. It is hardly an inducement to political candor. Yet Sarkozy invited Yasmina Reza to chronicle his quasi-private moments and record his boutades. I leave it to readers to analyze Dati's. Does it reveal, in Freudian manner, a certain aggressivity toward her boss? A certain insensitivity to the objects of the coup de Kärcher? A discomfort with a past she has left behind? Or something else? And what are we to make of the apparent connivance between a young leader of the student opposition and a lieutenant of the candidate he was strenuously opposing at the time? An interesting vignette of la vie politique.

Rachida Dati (Guest Post--Éloi Laurent)

[This guest post by Éloi Laurent is another in his series of biographical sketches of "visible minorities" in positions of power in France.]

“I’m French of French origin: I was born in the heart of Burgundy”. Thus speaks Rachida Dati, 41, the new French Minister of Justice, whose father was born in Morocco and mother was born in Algeria, the highest-ranked politician of North-African descent in France’s history, the first member of a visible minority ever to hold a “ministère régalien” (formerly royal, now part of the night-watch state as opposed to the welfare state: interior, justice, defense, foreign affairs). By these standards alone, Dati has already made history: with her, diversity has finally found its way to the very core of French power.

Actually, the Minister of Justice is also, and even primarily, the “Garde des Sceaux” (keeper of the seals), an office that can be traced to the 14th century. As such, from her office in the beautiful Hôtel de Bourvallais, Place Vendôme, Dati, after Michel de l'Hospital, René-Charles de Maupeou, Georges-Jacques Danton, Aristide Briand, René Capitant and Robert Badinter, holds the power to grant authenticity to laws. In 2007, French genuineness is being sealed by Rachida Dati. Who knew?

Dati was born in November 1965 in an HLM near Châlon-sur-Saône, (Saône et Loire), the second of twelve children. Her mother was Illiterate and her father, a mason, learned to speak and read French with his children. Starting to work as soon as she legally could to support herself and her family, she made it to college, first at the University of Burgundy and then in Paris, graduating in economics and public law.

What followed was a labyrinthic journey of masterful networking into France’s most secretive and sulphurous companies of the 1980s and 1990s, begun when she wowed the Minister of Justice Albin Chalandon at a party at the Algerian embassy to which she had not been invited (on her way to her first day of office as Minister of Justice, she would stop to pick Chalandon up and take possession of her office with him at her side).

In 1987, she joined Elf-Aquitaine, in 1990, she went to work for Matra, in 1994, she was hired by the Lyonnaise des Eaux. During those years, she also collected powerful protectors, such as Jean-Luc Lagardère, Jacques Attali, Marceau Long, Simone Veil and even Bernard Kouchner, who offered her a spot on a list for the European elections of 1994 (which she declined).

She entered public service in 1995, as a technical adviser for the judiciary division of the Minister of National Education and was admitted in 1997 to the Ecole nationale de la magistrature, from which she graduated in 1999. She had become so close to Simone Veil by that time that she took her judicial oath in the robe of the former Minister of Health.

She started her judicial career at the Court of Bobigny, the second most important in France and probably one of the most difficult, as it is in charge of Seine-Saint-Denis (ironically enough, its judges were attacked in November 2006 by the then Minister of Interior Sarkozy for their alleged “desertion” on the frontline of crime punishment). Dati moved in 2001 to the Court of Evry, becoming an assistant to the Procureur de la République.

In June 2002, with her characteristic chutzpah, she wrote to Sarkozy asking to work for him. With his characteristic instinct, he asked her to come on board. An adviser for integration, prevention of delinquency and social cohesion Place Beauvau, she followed Sarkozy everywhere he went in the Republic from 2002 to 2007. In the process, Dati not only became a prominent figure of the first political circle of the future President, but also an intimate of his wife, Cécilia. Wasn’t Dati in Malta after the victory and in Wolfeboro this summer?

Actually, according to Dati, it was Cécilia herself who decided she would become one of the two spokespersons for the candidate Sarkozy, despite the fact that she has never been elected to any office and only became a member of the UMP in December 2006, a mere month before her nomination.

But anyone doubting her political skills and mistaking her for an incompetent “favorite” should watch the way she rhetorically defeats Arnaud Montebourg, a lawyer and her counterpart in the Royal campaign. To the aggressive TF1 journalist who insisted in another interview that, in her life, she has seized opportunities instead of waiting for them, she simply answers: “Did I have a choice ?”

She quickly became a media icon during and right after the campaign, but the sour soon began to emerge from under the sweet, The Nouvel Observateur for instance perniciously portrayed her as a “Rastignac aux yeux de biche” (a doe-eyed Rastignac, after the scheming, ambitious Balzac anti-hero). This media ambivalence culminated when Dati, now a Minister, faced two serious hurdles right in the middle of the passing of her inaugural law on recidivism promised by the candidate Sarkozy.

Out of the blue, her chief of staff (directeur de cabinet) of a few weeks resigned, invoking the coded “personal motives,” and three advisers soon followed, It turned out that Dati’s first collaborator had had “enough of being insulted every day”. The idea that Dati could have “mistreated her staff” to the point of no-return verges on the ridiculous. Non-difficult persons in tense political periods are unheard of in ministerial cabinets, the harshest being…chiefs of staff.. More importantly, resigning in the middle of the first parliamentary debate by a new Minister looks at best unprofessional and at worst dereliction of duty. If anything, the behavior of Dati’s former collaborators reflected the classic power struggle between a new Minister and her ministry staff over substance, not style.

The other affair was even more destabilizing. One of Dati’s brothers, Jamal, faced court for the second time for drug trafficking at the very moment his sister was defending her law increasing penalties for recidivists (he was later sentenced to one year in jail). Overall, the trouble was serious enough that Sarkozy felt obliged to attend Dati’s Garden Party on July 14th to support her, while reminding everyone how important it was that she succeeded.

The press chronicle of this difficult start was so harsh it prompted reactions by two major left-leaning civic rights associations, the LICRA and SOS Racisme, which claimed Dati had received an unfair treatment due to her origin. As for her law, it was finally passed on July 27 and deemed constitutional on August 9, but not without strong criticism by some judges and a fine connoisseur of the French judicial system.

This is just the beginning of Dati’s tenure, but it is already obvious that her road is going to be bumpy. First, because France has yet to come to terms with the fact that Justice has a new face. Second, because friendship and politics rarely mix well and Dati is probably too close to Sarkozy in this regard. Finally, because the French public opinion has a hard time accepting that Dati is not a poor little thing humbled by her disadvantaged background nor a cruel “intriguante” crashing anyone standing between her and absolute power. Yes, she knows the elite codes, yes she knows her way around, yes she is quite ambitious and determined, yes she is unapologetic. A gifted politician. Nothing more and nothing less.

-- contributed by Éloi Laurent

Royal Entry

Ségolène Royal kicked off the era of Socialist renovation with an event yesterday in Melle. She spoke for an hour and a half, although it's difficult to reconstruct from news dispatches (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) how she filled that ample expanse of time. She did, however, make at least two important points, which indicate how she intends to approach the next few months--months that will very likely be crucial in determining who emerges as the new Socialist leader.

First, she broke sharply with Hollande's strategy of lambasting everything Sarkozy has done. Evidently recognizing the president's high standing in the polls, she credited him with having undertaken genuine "reform." But if she approved the overall direction, she chose to attack on the means. Would his actions deliver the promised results? And had not similar promises been made in the past, without effect? Avoiding a frontal assault is a smart tactic when the enemy is still fresh and holds the high ground.

Second, she invited the Socialists who have joined the government to participate in the renovation of the PS. This was again a rebuke to Hollande, who has effectively excommunicated the "turncoats." It was also a recognition of Sarkozy's shrewdness, since l'ouverture has met with the overwhelming approval of voters. Royal is thus offering an ouverture in reverse, or at least a non-fermeture, recognizing that for now, at least, strict partisanship is unpopular.

Beyond that, there was the usual boilerplate about building a "great modern party" and accepting the market: "The market is as natural as the air we breathe or the water we drink." In point of fact it isn't, but perhaps going too far is better than not going far enough, although I am reminded of Jean Cocteau's quip that "il faut savoir jusqu'où on peut aller trop loin." She attacked Sarko on the paragraph in his Dakar speech that has so rankled Africans and on the "injustice" of his tax package. She announced that she "is not in competition with anyone," although manifestly she is. And she emphasized repeatedly that she is a "new woman" and "serene."

Indeed, on the subject of her serenity, she protested rather too much. On the France2 news last night, she responded with clumsy sarcasm to Laurent Delahousse's question about her "state of mind" after such a long and "fatiguing" campaign. It was as if she were accusing the network of seeking to plant an image of her as a distraught women in a state of depression over her loss. She rambled quite a bit and had a hard time staying on message, but it was the end of a long day, and maybe she was in speechifying mode and unprepared for sound bite discipline. Delahousse did not ask her what she thought of Sarkozy's description of her as a nullité (as reported by Yasmina Reza). Surely someone will ask that question one day, however, and I hope she's ready with the obvious answer, that in the same breath Sarko allegedly said "it's not certain that being a nothing is a disadvantage with the French," rather an insulting view of le peuple for the supreme leader of la grande Nation to take.