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Thursday, 29 November 2007

Breaking the sound of silence

It hasn’t happened often in the past six months, but there’s been something of a lull in recent weeks in the French president’s almost boundless domination of the country’s news agenda.

But hallelujah Nicolas Sarkozy is about to make yet another of his ad hoc party political broadcasts this evening - on behalf of himself of course.

There’ll be prime time TV news coverage with the usual simpering questions from two of the country’s top journalists, Patrick Poivre D’Avor - PPDA (TF1) and Arlotte Chabot (France 2).

Sarkozy will undoubtedly alternately frown and beam as he answers questions and outlines his (government’s) proposals for dealing with the riots in the suburbs, increasing individuals’ purchasing power and remaining steadfast in his resolve to reform pensions.

So he’s about to break his silence, which will come as a relief to many a journalist.

Friday’s newspapers will heave with headlines dominated by the president’s proclamations, so it’ll be a case of business as usual. Since he took office, Sarkozy has been popping up everywhere, all the time and his omnipresence even led some in the media to complain that he was getting too much coverage for every morsel he deigned to throw to the pack.

His answer was to maintain a thunderous hush as he allowed employment minister, Xavier Bertrand, to deal with the unions’ at a time when a huge chunk of the workforce was struggling its way through the transport strikes in an effort to put in their 35-hours a week.

The main thrust of tonight’s “interview” was meant to be consumer purchasing power or “pouvoir d’achat”. It seems to have become something of buzz phrase here recently with the French apparently firmly convinced they can legislate to increase it. Even the Socialists (yes they still squeak with several voices) have promised to express their disunited view on how the euro can be made to stretch further.

Nobody should hold their breath though for some magical presidential solution. It’s hard to see exactly how Sarkozy can offer real incentives, as the state coffers are all but empty after the tax breaks awarded to the better off a few months ago.

The economy hasn’t yet had the kick-start that was expected and Sarkozy resolutely refuses to increase the minimum wage. So the likely answer to drop from the president’s lips will be his oft-chanted mantra “work more to earn more”. Hallelujah indeed.

Meanwhile on the violence in the suburbs, he’ll once again be hard pushed to find a quick-fit answer as everyone agrees there simply isn’t one

He has already vowed to find those who shot and injured police officers in the rioting that followed the death of two teenagers after their scooter collided with a police car.

The most Sarkozy can realistically offer is to accelerate the current consultation process already being undertaken by the junior minister for urban policies, Fadela Amara. She’s due to deliver a blueprint for improving education and employment opportunities (especially among the young) in the deprived inner city suburbs at the end of January 2008.

But at least Sarkozy’s reaction as president has been much more measured this time around than it was two years ago when he was interior minister. The three weeks of violence in 2005 led him to remark that the “scum needed to be cleaned from the street” – a comment which did not endear him to the residents of those inner city suburbs and he made a point of steering clear of them during his presidential campaigning.

This week’s violence broke out while he was on a state visit to China signing billion-euro contracts and it was left to the current interior minister, Michele Alliot-Marie – widely perceived as a much more conciliatory figure – to deal with the immediate aftermath.

On his return Sarkozy visited injured police officers in their hospital beds and took to the streets before (finally) persuading the families of the two youths who died in the collision to come to his official residence at the Elysée Palace.

Zero tolerance may still be at the core of Sarkozy’s approach, but the reigns of office, lessons of the past and his undoubted showmanship may well help him garner support from the public at large.

Ah yes this evening’s PR show will be fascinating, if only to see whether either PPDA or Chabot dares to ask any follow-up questions about Cecilia. During their last-love in a couple of month ago, the two esteemed journalists were treated to a touching marital tribute from Sarkozy who waxed lyrical over his (now former) wife’s contribution to his political life. There was no hint of the impending divorce of course.

Maybe the name Laurence will pass his lips this time. Unlikely.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Love is in the air

Barely weeks after officially divorcing his apparent femme fatale, the enigmatic Cecilia, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly head over heels in love again.

And this time it’s with a leading French television journalist, who recently announced she was splitting from her husband of 14 years.

Laurence Ferrari is not just your run of the mill journo. The 41-year-old presented a number of documentaries on the country’s top-rated TF1 channel and hosted a lightweight political weekly magazine with her former husband, Thomas Hugues.

Indeed Hugues and Ferrari were so-to-speak the golden glamour couple of TV news, perhaps unkindly perceived as the network’s Ken and Barbie. And they were both regular stand-ins for the daily and weekend prime time news anchors Patrick Poivre d'Arvor and Claire Chazal.

But that all changed in Autumn last year when Ferrari was poached by a competitive network – Canal + – and given her own weekly political programme, the chance for her to go one-on-one with some of France’s leading figures.

And it was on the set of that show, Dimanche +, that she met the then presidential candidate in March this year – and by all reports the two clicked.

Over the past few months the couple have supposedly been spotted enjoying candlelit meals together in Paris, and Ferrari is a frequent visitor to the president’s official residence, the Elysée Palace.

She was even allegedly seen at the same hotel in Marrakech, during Sarkozy’s state visit to Morocco earlier this month.

Ah the true stuff of genuine journalism – gossip and speculation.

If the two workaholics do get together you, can bet that the French media will be the last to confirm the relationship as it has until recently been notoriously cautious in reporting the private lives of public people. France has very strict privacy laws.

Should the rumours be true, it won’t be the first time Sarkozy has had a fling with a journalist. Two years ago he was romantically linked to Anna Fulda, a reporter on the centre-right daily Le Figaro.

True or false, the rumours of the fledgling romance persist. And the assertion by an Elysée Palace spokesman that Sarkozy's personal life was "not open for discussion" will hardly help. Much the same response was given in the days leading up to the divorce from Cecilia last month.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Claws out in cabinet

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, may well have rubber-stamped trade deals worth almost 20 billion euros during his state visit to China, but back home there has been a minor media storm surrounding one person who wasn’t invited along for the trip.

Sarkozy took a clutch of seven government ministers and a gaggle of French industrialists with him on his three-day trip, but there was no room on the ‘plane for Rama Yade.

Senegalese-born Yade was appointed as a junior minister back in June – with responsibilities in an area Sarkozy had identified as a priority for his new government – human rights.

The 30-year-old Yade, who has had a meteoric rise to political high office, is one of three women from ethnic minorities to figure in the government. The others are justice minister, Rachida Dati, who holds dual French-Moroccan nationality, and the junior minister for urban policies, Fadela Amara, whose parents are of Algerian Kabyle origin.

Sarkozy often talks about them as a symbol of the diversity and the new face of French politics.

So how come Yade has been left at home while Dati yet again accompanies the president on his travels? After all it would make sense to have her along as by any standards China has one of the world’s worst human rights records. And Yade herself wanted to go.

Ah well of course there is a purely pragmatic reason. Sarkozy simply didn’t want to offend his hosts by including in his entourage someone charged specifically with responsibilities for human rights.

As even Yade’s immediate boss, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, pointed out beforehand, the purpose of the trip was to secure those multi-billion euro deals for two nuclear power stations and 160 Airbus ‘planes.

Far better then for Sarkozy to deal with the delicate issue of human rights himself even if it meant once again usurping the role of one of his ministers. A characteristic not unfamiliar so far during his short reign as president.

But the rumour mill has it that pure politics was not the only reason behind the decision. Personal differences and disputes normally confined to the school playground also played their part.

Hard to believe, but apparently true, Dati cannot stand Yade and accordingly threw a little hissy fit along the lines of “If she goes I stay at home.”

Home for Dati is not especially welcoming at the moment as she is trying to push through reforms to France’s antiquated judicial administrative system but is often accused of being completely incompetent.

Remember this is the woman who is a close buddy with the former Mrs Sarkozy and whom the president has withdrawn from the domestic firing line a couple of times already by taking her on his jaunts to Morocco and the United States.

Whatever the personal relationship between Dati and Yade, both women will have the chance to put their political popularity to the test next year when they stand in local elections.

Perhaps Yade will have used the past few days as a chance to get in a spot of early campaigning in her constituency while Dati picks up a few tips from the Chinese as to how to run an ultra-efficient judicial system.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Sarkozy’s trouble with women 4

When he came to power in May this year the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised parity within government. Real equality between the sexes at last. And he delivered…..apparently…..appointing seven women to the 15-strong cabinet.

But is and was it true parity or simply a gesture with little substance?

Do those women in fact actually hold positions of real power? Or are they simply there to make up the numbers and carry out the wishes of the president?

The evidence so far is mixed, although in his defence it should be said that Sarkozy has never flinched from interfering in each of his minister’s– be they men or women - areas of responsibilities

But his electoral promise for gender parity comes in for particular scrutiny, as the women seem to have suffered most from Sarkozy’s methods of government.

Take the case of the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie.

She’s a woman with a long political career on both a local and national level, entering politics in 1983 as a local councillor and three years later winning a seat in parliament. By the end of the 90s MAM – as she is commonly known - had worked her way through the ranks of the centre-right Rassemblement pour la République party, the forerunner of the modern-day Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, to become the first woman to lead a party. In 2002 another first for MAM, when she was appointed defence minister – a post she held until May this year.

She considered standing as a candidate for the UMP presidential nomination, but eventually threw her backing behind Sarkozy in the hope of being suitably rewarded. In a sense she was, becoming (once again) the first woman to hold the office of interior minister. But her role and influence has been seriously diminished by Sarkozy’s decision to move immigration to another (newly-created) ministry, headed by one of his closest allies and personal friend for more than 30 years, Brice Hortefeux.

So MAM, who just six months ago was in charge of one of Europe’s largest defence budgets and took the occasional trip in a Mirage fighter ‘plane, now finds herself drawing up laws against dangerous dogs and accompanying the president whenever he pitches up in front of the cameras to comfort families whose loved ones have died in fires.

If the common perception is that Alliot-Marie has perhaps been sidelined, the same cannot be said of the culture minister Christine Albanel, whose role – as far Sarkozy is concerned – was never going to be anything other than minor.

Indeed Sarkozy did not have a great deal to say about culture in the run-up to the presidential elections. And he isn’t perceived as being particularly highbrow.

Another close personal friend of the president, Albanel may have the right intellectual credentials for the job, but that certainly won’t stop Sarkozy from muscling in whenever he sees fit. And that’s exactly what he did at the beginning of September, when he stepped into the role of culture minister at the inauguration ceremony of the revamped City of Architecture and Heritage museum in Paris,

And Albanel has a clear brief in a letter she received from the president himself to “democratise” culture by allowing free access to major museums encouraging more “creative and bold” cultural programmes on the small screen.

While Albanel’s job should be safe as long as she does what she’s told, Christine Boutin, the social cohesion minister, has a far trickier task. Although she has a track record in social affairs, it’s not one that endears her to everyone.

She’s an outspoken advocate of moral conservatism and founder of one of France’s largest pro-life organisations. Back in 1998 she opposed legislation to recognise same-sex domestic partnerships (PACS), famously arguing that its adoption would encourage homosexuality!

Should French television screens be filled once again with pictures of riots in the inner city suburbs, the homeless camping in tents on the streets of the capital, or asylum seekers being turfed out of sheltered accommodation, Sarkozy could well ditch Boutin and take control himself.

The last woman in the cabinet is the much-loved Roselyne Bachelot – a maverick of the centre-right. The health and sport minister was the only member of her party to vote in favour of the PACS back in the 1990s and is generally seen as the jolliest and most engaging member of the government. Paradoxically, that could be her very undoing.

She’s not averse to speaking her mind and handsomely putting her foot in it, just as she did several years ago when she let slip that former president Jacques Chirac was slightly deaf in one ear. Old habits clearly die hard for Bachelot, and recently she unofficially named a new recruit as a junior minister before Sarkozy or the proposed candidate had given their approval. The appointment was never made.

Bachelot fairly warbles her way through interviews on the airwaves and is spoofed on telly as having no clue as to what she is doing, which is true perhaps for her sporting ministerial hat. In fact she struck quite an amusing figure during France’s hosting of the rugby world cup, with a definite twinkle in her eye as the players grappled each other for the ball on the pitch.

Always smiling and loudly dressed, she comes as close as anyone to being a national institution but whether that, and her undoubted expertise in health issues will be enough to save her from a premature chop is unlikely.

How Bachelot and her fellow women in cabinet fare clearly depends not just on their own abilities but also on whether they have presidential approval. The prime minister, Francois Fillon, may be their boss, but to all intents and purposes, it’s Sarkozy who wields the potential axe.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Sarkozy’s trouble with women 3

The students are revolting! And how she must wish they weren’t.

At just 40 Valérie Pécresse is the youngest member of the cabinet and as minister for higher education and research has probably had the toughest introduction to frontline politics of any of the newcomers to the government.

Once again the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has appointed someone with limited political experience although she has been a member of parliament since 2002.

Her academic pedigree is impeccable – she’s a graduate of the prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration, the university from which much of the country’s political and business elite is drawn.

Articulate, ambitious and dynamic, she quickly threw herself into the job of carrying out one of Sarkozy’s election pledges – to overhaul the country’s creaking higher education system.

After a swift consultation period with student and university representatives she was the first minister to push through legislation in parliament – strategically timed to sail through while most of the country was on holiday.

The law allows universities more autonomy to manage their assets and budgets, recruit staff and design courses, create partnerships with business and look for additional funding from private financial corporations. It also gives special power to university heads.

Unfortunately for Pécresse, students are not buying in to the government’s spin on the reforms. Instead many of them claim the so-called “privatisation” of higher education will allow big business to fund courses only designed to fit their needs, to the detriment of liberal arts and social sciences faculties.

So with the spirit of ’68 clearly ringing in the ears, students have all but closed down a majority of France’s universities and thrown their weight behind strikes organised by transport workers and civil servants.

Pécresse hasn’t exactly helped deflate the situation. She held negotiations with union leaders in early November but refused to back down. And with an arrogance that perhaps comes from knowing she has Sarkozy’s full backing, Pécresse has been less than tactful in suggesting that the extreme left wing has infiltrated the movement to spearhead the students’ protests.

But with the Socialist party opposition hardly throwing its support behind the students, reform looks to be a done deal. Pécresse is likely to come out of the fray battered but triumphant with a political standing which can do no harm to her reputation as the rising young star of the centre right.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Sarkozy’s trouble with women 2

When he came to office in May this year the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised gender parity in his 15-strong government. And true to his word seven of the 15-strong cabinet are women.

But they’re not all having a smooth ride, and indeed some of them might well be marginalised in the first reshuffle, which if the French are true to form, cannot be more than a few months away.

While Rachida Dati, the justice minister, could be forgiven for her lack of experience and relative youth, surely no such excuse can be offered for the woman who has without doubt one of the most important jobs in the French government.

Christine Lagarde is the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 country and although she might be a little short of political experience (a characteristic of several of the women in the French government) she comes with a humdinger of a reputation as an antitrust and labour lawyer.

So a safe pair of hands you might think for the task of pushing through parliament all the controversial legislation Sarkozy plans to rejuvenate the French economy, including tax cuts and measures to liberalise the labour market.

In addition, Legarde is a fellow disciple of Sarkozy’s often-heard mantra “work more to earn more” and in one of her first speeches to the French parliament back in July caused a stir when she said France was a country that thinks too much and that thinking prevented reforms from being implemented!

Direct talking indeed from a woman who was the first female chairman of the US-based international law firm Baker & McKenzie and since 2005 has appeared twice in Forbes Magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful women.

But those oh-so-safe hands and plain talking have been the subject of media ridicule recently as she very ably put her foot in her mouth without anyone else’s help.

When the cost of crude oil began its dramatic rise on the international markets a couple of weeks ago Lagarde came up with a hapless solution to rocketing prices at the petrol pumps. She very helpfully suggested the French look at using other forms of transport – including bikes – which would cut down congestion and of course be good for the environment!

Unfortunately perhaps her remarks might have been better received by the general public had they not come just days before the second public transport strike, which has seen tailbacks of more than 150kms (just around Paris) during peak hours.

Political commentators didn’t let Lagarde off the hook either as they lampooned her with the image of someone who would most probably advise France’s fisherman resort to sailing boats. They were at the time blockading ports to protest the rise in the cost of fuel.

So perhaps not the most auspicious of starts for Lagarde, especially as she has such a central role in Sarkozy’s “vision” for France, but it’s hard to imagine that her swift rise in politics will come to a premature end.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Sarkozy’s trouble with women 1

What is it with Nicolas Sarkozy’s “ladies”? Ever since the French president’s (former) wife slung her hook, there’s been nothing but trouble with the women surrounding him at the Elysees palace. Sarkozy may have delivered on the promised gender parity in government when he first came to power, but there’s every chance that in the near future he’ll be looking to do a spot of early spring-cleaning. And it could well be some of the women who are axed.

Three of the seven in particular in the 15-strong cabinet women in particular are walking a political tightrope after an assortment of gaffes. But they are showing a tenacity that would well insure they avoid the chop. The rest are in serious danger of simply being sidelined.

First up is Rachida Dati, who on paper at least was a pretty smart choice. The 42-year-old Justice Minister represented just about everything Sarkozy could wish for as he set about remodelling the country.

She’s the first person, let alone woman, of North African origin to hold a top government post and her rise from relative humble circumstances as one of 12 children to high office is the stuff of every Hollywood director’s dreams.

Her appointment raised many a proverbial eyebrow as she has never run for office and is politically pretty inexperienced. And that has started to show with her receiving a fair amount of flak for the manner in which she has tried to push through reform to France’s antiquated judicial administrative system.

Even though there is general political support from all quarters for the need for reform, Dati has been criticised for total incompetence by some Socialist parliamentarians. Unfortunately she also has the tendency to look a little like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights when she faces the camera and has spent perhaps just a little too much time recently as Sarkozy’s “Second Lady” on his jaunts to Morocco and the United States.

And therein lies another problem. Dati was – and still is – good buddies with Cecilia Sarkozy and has had to face a fair amount of ridicule from the press and accusations that she only got the job over others more qualified because of the former (non) “First Lady’s” influence.

A recent “teacup” scandal over an apparent false declaration of academic qualifications before she enrolled in the prestigious National College of Magistrates will not have endeared her to the chattering classes. And the knives are definitely out over her quest for genuine political credibility when she stands for a seat in next year’s local elections. Should she fail, it could well be the end of a very short political career. Hardly a Hollywood ending.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

172 per cent timing

Ah the skill of great timing. An ability made greater still by the paltry PRESIDENTIAL pay rise Nicolas Sarkozy has allowed parliament to rubber stamp. 172 per cent!

So instead of having to struggle to make ends meet on a meagre €101,000 a year he’ll now pocket more than €240,000 a year or around €19,000 per month.

Of course his aides, and indeed the man himself, have been claiming that it’s all being done in a spirit “transparency” as previous French presidents’ real incomes were somewhat obscured within the mysteries of the total “Elysée Palace” budget.

The pay hike will bring Sarkozy’s salary into line with most of the other European heads of government – with a bit extra of course, because he is after all also head of state.

And a quick trip around some parts of the continent reveals he was certainly in line for an increase.

Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, bags the sterling equivalent of €22,000 each month, and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel earns just under €18,000. Even Italy’s prime minister, Romano Prodi, brings home €16,000 worth of monthly bacon, although admittedly three-quarters of that is his chunk as an elected member of parliament.

But most importantly perhaps, it has adjusted the imbalance between the Top Job and the minions – an anomaly of the French political system, which has meant that until now the President has “officially” earned far less than his prime minister and many of the cabinet.

So, for some a raise is long overdue. Or is it? Many are asking whether the timing isn’t just a tad “off” with transport workers fighting to maintain their pensions deals and civil servants threatening to take (in)action.

Something of a stock phrase during the first six months of Sarkozy’s “reign” as France’s ever-present President has been the all-too-often repeated mantra “work more to earn more”. It’s at the heart of his philosophy, quite literally, to get France working. He has encouraged belt-tightening and undertaken to reward overtime in an effort to kick-start the country’s economy and breathe new life into people’s personal wealth.

One of his first measures of course was to slash inheritance tax in a move designed to benefit the already reasonably well off. Proof no doubt thought that he was living up to his electoral promise to raise living standards.

Well from €9,000 to €19,000 per month, at least Sarkozy’s standards will certainly have been raised, and clearly evidence that this hyperactive president holds true to his core conviction that pay should be linked to productivity.

The timing though of a pay rise for a man who has adamantly refused to increase the minimum wage in a country where half the population earns less than €1,500 per month has been slightly less than perfect.
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