Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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."


MCG said...

Brilliant, Arthur. The French King Lear, indeed.

bernard said...

excellent post indeed as usual.
The only thing on my mind is this: as a rule, and it was true of previous scandals including under Mitterrand (Plenel anyone?), French journalists do not find out by themselves, someone gives these infos to them. And I am left thinking, what beautiful revenge for JC and the Devil: the butcher may not have such clean hands after all...In any case, this illustrates yet again that French politics are about who's doing what to whom.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, yes, but has it occurred to you that Sarkozy cannot afford to jettison Woerth because the later knows too much ?

"Je te tiens, tu me tiens par la barbichette"


Anonymous said...

Woerth probably knows "too much" as Domino said above. After all, he's been in charge of UMP finances for a while (wasn't he also in charge back when it was RPR?)
Kahn has been wondering whether the government can hold much longer. Of course, impeachment or prosecution can't happen to a French head of state so Sarkozy's legally safe.

The defense screams "Godwin" ("fascist!") and there isn't much they can do. Sarkozy would have been better off if he'd taken your advice and sacked Woerth last week...

A good recap in English:

They had the same idea I, and many Americans I'm sure, had: Nixon! Watergate!

Unknown said...

Sure he knows too much, as did Haldeman and Ehrlichman, but at some point you have to let your co-conspirators twist slowly, slowly in the wind in the hope of avoiding the noose yourself. Scooter Libby knew too much, but he didn't talk. Woerth may not talk either, because if he is guilty, he has nothing to gain by sinking his own party. This is not a banal plea bargain. It's about maintaining control of the entire apparatus of justice. Lose that and you're sunk. If you're guilty. I wouldn't want to violate the presumption of innocence. But I'm convinced that there was a conflict of interest at the very least, and for that reason he should go. He should be smart enough to go on his own. But if he isn't, Sarkozy will have to push him. There is no other choice.