Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fissures in the Great Wall of China

As everyone now knows, Eric Woerth has insisted that he knew nothing of Mme Bettencourt's alleged tax evasions because une muraille de Chine existed between him and his wife and him and staff at the Budget and Finance Ministries. In solidarity, the president and the government threw up une muraille de Chine around Woerth, to stave off the baying hounds sent out by the malevolent opposition, bent on a chasse à l'homme. But the walls have begun to crack. Former finance ministers have spoken out to say that it is scarcely conceivable that dealings with "France's largest taxpayer" would not have been communicated to the ministerial level. Alain Juppé is not so sure that Woerth's role as treasurer of the UMP is compatible with his role as minister. Even Mme Woerth has acknowledged that she "underestimated" the potential for conflict of interest in her job (which implies that she thought about the possibility that there might be one and ignored it). And now Christine Lagarde, whose legal background no doubt sensitized her to the need to pass up certain opportunities to avoid potential conflicts of interest, has called for a clarification of regulations on the matter.

Sarkozy may still decide to tough it out with Woerth, who has already disproven my prediction that he would not last out the weekend. But the main reason for keeping Woerth--negotiations over retirement reform are at a critical phase, and nobody else in the government is up to speed--may be moot. It's quite possible that Woerth is more of a liability than an asset at this point. Worse still, the attempt to rein in ministerial spending and slow the government's train de vie--a ludicrous stab at "austerity through exemplarity" that includes cancellation of the Bastille Day garden party--only serves to reinforce the sense that the government is corrupt through and through while trimming virtually nothing from the national deficit. Sarko is now in a bind: if he leaves the government in place, with so many tarnished ministers, he looks helpless; if he cashiers the ministers and attempts to form a new government (with what talent?), he looks panicky and weak.

Of course he could attempt an Obama-esque coup. Obama replaced the tarnished McChrystal with the teflon-like Petraeus. Sarko could replace Woerth with Fillon, whose name is already associated with retirement reform and who could credibly fill the role. To be sure, this would be a demotion, as in the case of Petraeus, but better a demotion, Fillon might reason, than a defeat. Hence he could--I emphasize the conditional--possibly be persuaded to take the job. And then, for prime minister, in a Mitterrand-esque move, Sarko could bring in Juppé. Just as Rocard was a potential rival to Mitterrand in case of a collapse in presidential popularity and credibility, so Juppé sits in the wings, awaiting a miracle. What better way to defuse this potential bomb than to associate him with responsibility for failure? Would Juppé take the job? I think so. It would be his route to national rehabilitation. Of course the scandal that brought him down would be revived by the opposition, since it resembles current scandals (Estrosi's appartements de fonction, for instance). But the effect of surprise would likely overwhelm the criticism. By bringing in a tough and independent outsider, Sarkozy would make himself look stronger, while avoiding the wholesale remaniement that would make him look desperate and clueless.

If any of this happens, you heard it here first.