Sordid Sugarplums

12.15.12

France’s Petty Politics Brings Christmas Early to Scandal Lovers

From contested elections to a furious first lady, political figures in France can’t stop stuffing the stockings of those who relish scandal, writes Tracy McNicoll.

In France, across the board, left and right, as if attuned to the December mercury in chilly Paris, politicians' poll numbers are plunging. Serial intrigue, roiling scandal, explosive grudges, sex, lies, and audiotape—it seems every day has its new lot of mid-grade merde of the political genre. Not earth-shattering bombshells--even Dominique Strauss-Kahn can call it a day—but a steady service of front-page amuse-bouches. From the numbers, the country isn't best pleased. But for France's media, mourning the electoral passing of enfant-terrible former president Nicolas Sarkozy, it has been looking a lot like Christmas.

When Sarkozy lost his bid for a second term in May to the ostentatiously "normal" Socialist François Hollande, hacks fretted more or less privately. Jean Plantu, Le Monde's page-one political cartoonist, whose job it is to say what many cannot, was clear. "[Sarkozy's] departure was a catastrophe for me. I never knew a politician who, to that extent, was a caricature of himself. To the many readers who told me, 'I love your Sarkozy caricature," I replied, 'But it isn't a caricature, it's a portrait!'" joked Plantu, with the wisdom of 40 years in the political-sketch business. "I owe Sarko money for how much he made my work easy: the drawing came by itself, the pencil ran along the paper. It isn't the same with Hollande," the cartoonist mused to his newspaper. "It's so much easier with arrogant politicians who insult people. What is good for the caricaturist isn't necessarily good for democracy."

Days later, French television's Les Guignols, a popular puppet-based news send-up (think The Muppet Show meets The Daily Show) expressed that frustration in song. To the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe,” the primetime broadcast rounded up puppet likenesses of France's top anchors and celebrity talk-show hosts to sound the alarm in a music video called "Call Back Sarkozy." The singing puppets waxed nostalgic for the seemingly perpetual controversy under his watch and pleaded for someone to "get him out of his jacuzzi." The chorus went, "Hey, we need him! / Because we're bored! / So take your cellphone / Call back Sarkozy!"

Like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, the fretful marionettes pondered what life would be like without Sarkozy. "The ratings will be rotten / For the full five-year term," they intoned. What they imagined wasn't so much a dystopian landscape—the economic cataclysm Sarkozy himself warned would befall France if he disappeared after Election Day. Hollande might not drive the proverbial savings and loan into the ground. But what if everything becomes ... boring? Après moi, le dull déluge?

Flash forward and somewhere, somehow, the puppet reporters' wishes were heard. They wouldn't have Sarkozy back, per se--that naughty and nice list is serious business--but they wouldn't get lumps of coal, either. And so, for weeks now, France's political landscape has been a sort of surreal advent calendar of nonsense, with a daily milk-chocolate gaffe, scoop, or scandal behind every door. Like “The 12 Days of Christmas”--French hens a-clucking and geese a-laying--plus B-sides, hidden tracks, and remastered bonus material.

A botched center-right leadership election on Nov. 18 verged on slapstick. Both candidates for the helm of Sarkozy's former party declared victory by, at one point, fewer than 100 votes out of more than 175,000 cast. And the psychodrama that ensued has been a gift that keeps on giving.

Before the votes were even counted, aides for both sides cried fraud. The right-wing daily Le Figaro, in an editorial entitled "To Laugh or to Cry," essentially implored the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) to resolve its differences "by heads or tails, drawing straws, or a potato-sack race." One official recount gave incumbent party leader Jean-François Copé the win over Sarkozy's former prime minister, François Fillon. Rivals had accused the underdog Copé of trying, Sarkozy-style, to "create buzz at any cost." Poised to imitate Sarkozy's 2012 election play for hardliners, Copé stumped about "anti-white racism" and a dubious story about a child having his pain au chocolat yanked away by a Muslim schoolmate forbidding daytime snacks during Ramadan.

Shortly after Copé was officially declared the winner, it was revealed that some of France's overseas territories had been forgotten in the recount. Fillon's side said the forgotten votes gave their guy the win; Copé's people disagreed. When the grievance committee, led by a Copé associate, declared Copé the winner again, Fillon demanded a re-vote; Copé dug in. Heavyweights, including Sarkozy, stepped in to mediate. To no avail.

The party's lower-house caucus has split in two as the saga continues, day after day. Copé remains a disputed party chief and the fight over whether—and, crucially, when—to hold a new vote is almost certain to carry over into the New Year. In their scorched-earth battle for the leadership—a coveted prelude to any 2017 presidential run—both Fillon and Copé have lost massive public support, shedding double-digits with every poll. Copé, officially the leader of France's opposition, finished dead last this week in a ranking of 37 of the country’s politicians. Only 19 percent of French people surveyed in that poll by the Ipsos firm said they liked him, down 15 points since last month.

The latest twisted stocking stuffer? On Thursday, the chief of the UMP's grievance committee was handed an 18-month suspended sentence in a separate affair after being convicted of taking advantage of a 91-year-old woman's weakness in a real-estate transaction.

Across the aisle, France's majority Socialist Party has restrained its schadenfreude. Out of power for 10 years until Hollande won the nation's top job in May, the Socialist government's teething period has been a difficult one—from the education minister going way off-message with his thumbs-up to marijuana, to the minister for industrial renewal taking his Soviet-style job title to heart, threatening to resign this month when Paris refused to nationalize an ailing steel foundry. One Ipsos poll this week put Hollande's approval rating at a grim 35 percent, down six points since last month.

Indeed, the ghost of Christmas past need not remind Socialists that their own burlesque scandals danced like sugarplums in their rivals' heads for years. Strauss-Kahn, remember, was supposed to win them the presidency before that Manhattan perp walk. Indeed, in 2008, the party's own bitter leadership campaign ended with an astonishing 102-vote gap out of 135,000 cast. Fraud allegations flew then, too, and legal threats persisted thereafter. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy would even eulogize the troubled Socialist Party, comparing it to a decomposing corpse.

And besides, the Socialists have gift-wrapped their own bizarre recent affairs to a giddy French press.

Just this week, President Hollande made headlines with a letter backing up First Lady Valérie Trierweiler in her defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit against two journalists. Hollande's missive led some pundits to charge that the president was overstepping his powers (as, they suggest, Sarkozy might have). Trierweiler disputes passages in the reporters' recent biographical tome about her, notably the suggestion that she was once intimate with a UMP heavyweight. Trierweiler, a longtime journalist herself for the glossy weekly Paris Match, spurred a publishing frenzy earlier this year after she crossed a red line on Twitter. Her controversial tweet backed a dissident leftist politician running against Socialist Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children.

Hollande's budget minister, meanwhile, has been dogged by extraordinary allegations this month that he long held a secret account in Switzerland, a tax haven. Jérôme Cahuzac, the Socialist charged with fighting tax fraud, known for his grinchy approach with the public purse, has categorically denied the accusation. Speaking on the floor of parliament's lower house, he denied ever having held any account abroad.

The investigative reporting website that alleged the scoop, Mediapart, produced what it says is a 12-year-old secret recording of the politician implicating himself. The publication alleges that the minister's so-called confession was captured after he accidentally hit redial on his cellphone one day in 2000, inadvertently leaving a private conversation about the account on someone's voicemail. As French media scrambled to learn how Mediapart could have obtained its material, it was revealed that Cahuzac is going through a divorce, that his wife once hired a private detective, and that his wife's lawyer's brother happens to be embattled UMP leader Jean-François Copé. The private detective denies any involvement, but suggested that others, too, have hired private eyes to pry into Cahuzac's affairs.

And yet for all the yuletide cheer the season has brought to temper the ennui of the scandal-starved post-Sarkozy French media, a time-honored Christmas tradition remains: coveting the neighbor's presents. The tree, it seems, is always greener on the other side. Of the Alps. And this holiday season, those boys and girls look, with a twinkle in their envious eyes, to the jolly, rosy-cheeked senior citizen beyond the pines. One Silvio Berlusconi.