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France’s Bad Week: Ugly Rugby, Sad Divorce, Stupid Strike

French president Nicolas Sarkozy was faced with his marriage publicly falling apart, his entire transportation system paralyzed by a strike and his national rugby team suffering a humiliating defeat - all in one week. But, as PJM Paris editor Nidra Poller writes, presidents don't have time to mope.

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October 25, 2007 - 12:00 am

By Nidra Poller

What a week. The president’s marriage failed, the transportation strike was a partial success, and the French were massacrated by Argentina, 10 to 34, in the runoff match for third place in the rugby championship.

Former PM Raffarin judged the transportation strike “archaic.” By contrast France-Info, the state-owned all-”news” radio station, talked it up so pretty you’d think it could replace that lost World Cup and bring back the 1995 strike that lasted forever, crippled the economy, knocked out PM Alain Jupp√©, and postponed urgent reforms. Everyone knows that the lush retirement program– “r√©gimes sp√©ciaux”– will have to go. The unions, which are too close for comfort to left wing political parties, want to equalize everything BUT their own privileges. Striking workers like guerilla fighters need support from the masses; this strike is unpopular, the united union front has split, and there was more shame than glory in scenes of white-haired grandmothers pushed out of jam-packed trains onto jam-packed platforms where masses of lower middle class workers were stranded far from their banlieues.

New legislation imposing minimum service during public sector strikes will go into effect on the 1st of January. Elected on a promise to break the stalemates that have plagued French society for decades, the Sarkozy government is resisting pressure from vested interests on every issue. Justice Minister Rachida Dati is greeted with a chorus of howling lawyers and magistrates as she travels across the country to explain why the government is reorganizing jurisdictions for the first time since 1958.

Immigration reform is opposed by an alliance between raggle taggle everything-for-all associations and a groundswell of chic moralists who have finally found their cause c√©l√®bre in r√©sistance against DNA testing as proof of filiation for family reunification. They’ve put the Nazi-racist stamp on this minor provision of a broad immigration bill designed to move from imposed to selective immigration. DNA testing, equated with the Nuremberg laws, is the first step to the new Auschwitz. Charlie Hebdo, the gross satirical weekly that published the Mohamed cartoons and hates Sarkozy with equal fervor, and the daily Lib√©ration gathered over 300,000 signatures to a “Touche pas √† mon ADN,” petition inspired by the 1980s SOS Racisme slogan Touche pas √† mon pote (Hands off my brotha’). The immigration bill, including the DNA testing option, passed in the legislature this week. For want of a real deity that could strike down the government, the Opposition is taking the law to the Conseil Constitutionnel in the hopes of getting it declared unconstitutional. My colleague V√©ronique Chemla of Guysen Israel News says the DNA testing follows an EU directive already applied in 12 countries.
Leaving striking workers and bedeviled travelers in their stations, president Sarkozy met with EU colleagues in Lisbon to sign a simplified treaty that should break the two-year stalemate that has prevailed since France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed Constitutional Treaty. French reporters covering this major breakthrough in EU politics, which must be honestly accredited to Sarkozy, took the opportunity to grill him about the divorce. He replied that he was elected to deal with the problems of French citizens, not to get them involved in his personal problems and added, “Perhaps they have more dignity than the press.”

When the Sarkozy divorce by mutual consent was tersely and officially announced and the press fell all over it, an IFOP poll, 89% consider the divorce a private matter.

Rumors of the impending divorce had become increasingly insistent. The media were whispering about the president’s marital problems, speculating about C√©cilia’s conspicuous absence, prattling about her undue influence on political decisions while noting her undue indifference to her husband’s day to day political activity. Journalists guffawed last spring when she didn’t vote in the final round of the presidential campaign. Opposition politicians threw daggers at her for helping to liberate the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor from Ghadaffi’s clutches. The golden rule of silence about the private lives of public figures has been broken daily and with particular venom where Sarkozy is concerned. Photos of C√©cilia and her lover were splashed from Paris Match to provincial rags when she left him in 2005. And the behind the scenes scandal machine was even more vicious in those days, when the Chirac-Villepin clique thought they could break Sarkozy’s political back and hoist Villepin’s wavy hair to the summit of the state. According to reliable inside information, Sarkozy was going to divorce and remarry before the campaign. Then C√©cilia came back. But, as she explained in an exclusive interview with l’Est R√©publicain, “we tried everything, it didn’t work.”

Nicolas Sarkozy fell in love with C√©cilia Ciganer Albeniz when he officiated –as mayor of Neuilly-at her marriage to TV star, Jacques Martin (who died this month). She gave birth to two daughters…those slim, glamorous, blondes often seen with Sarkozy during the presidential campaign, as if they were standing in for their stand off mother. Sarkozy married, fathered two boys. C√©cilia and Nicolas met again in 1987, fell madly in love, divorced their respective partners. They married in 1996, their son Louis was born in 1997. More than just a tall, glamorous, former Schiaperelli model, C√©cilia had studied law and worked as a parliamentary aide. She actively accompanied her husband in his intense political career. Photos taken in happier days contrast starkly with recent images of a dressed down C√©cilia, no makeup, no coiffure, no pizazz.

American observers might interpret the public reaction to the divorce as further proof of French amorality. My buddies at the Wall Street Journal Europe, who are so hard on Sarkozy for reasons I ignore, toasted the divorce as the End of Camelot [link] √† la John & Jackie Kennedy. Curious reference. The Kennedys are a sterling example of romantico-political hype, currently played in a more rustic version by the Clintons. Bill Clinton was here recently plugging the French translation of “Donner [Giving].” You should have seen him on TV telling how much he loves Hillary. “I’d do anything for her,” he said, with no shame. If Nicolas and C√©cilia Sarkozy had been playing that game they wouldn’t need to divorce. She could stand beside him in designer clothes and cheat on him to her heart’s content.
“I met someone two years ago,” she said in the L’est R√©publicain interview, “and fell in love.” Should this right be denied to the wife of a president when it is granted to everyone else, even the Pope if he were so inclined? Jacques and Bernadette Chirac did the presidential couples routine–madame standing by the side of monsieur le president, guarantee of his virility. They were together for mass in their fief in the Corr√®ze, glitzy summit meetings all over the world, vacations in Morocco. Journalists know more about Chirac’s turpitudes than I would care to suggest.

What’s sad about the Sarkozy divorce is its sincerity. Even sadder is the flood of sarcasm now pouring over the broken couple. Humane expression of delicate considerations for their feelings seems almost ridiculous as the president and his forlorn wife are crushed under the pileup of Europe’s pretentious gossipers chuckling over Sarkozy’s sufferings, waxing philosophical on his marriage defeat, predicting that his entire program will collapse in the wake of this well-earned jilt.
C√©cilia is on the cover of all the weeklies. Inside stories will be pouring out. Every squabble that’s ever been overheard will be retold with magnification, every kiss, every gesture of tenderness will be covered with sarcasm.

C√©cilia explains, in interviews in l’Est R√©publicain and Elle Magazine, that their marriage fell apart the same way millions of other marriages collapse; they tried to put it together, out of respect for family values, but it didn’t work. After two decades of active participation in her husband’s political ascension, she could not fit into the role of First Lady, couldn’t live under constant scrutiny from the media. She wants to get out of the limelight, have the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures, like shopping for groceries with their son Louis.

Though she has opted out of life at the summit, her admiration for president Sarkozy is worthy of attention

“…he is a statesman, a man who can give so much to his country…. He is like a violinist who suddenly holds a Stradivarius; he can practice his art to the fullest…. I was proud [when he was elected]! I was proud, because [his political combat] is a life’s work…and an abnegation, demanding great sacrifice. I think he belongs to the race of men who place their careers and their lives in the service of the State without asking anything in return….” Asked, “Is he a statesman?” she replied : “Yes, I think he is. I think France is worthy of him and he is worthy of France. I was proud and happy for him. ¬ª

France lost dismally to Argentina in the playoff match for third place. Hostility that couldn’t be satisfied with the heavy thuds and grapples allowed by the rules of the game broke out in fistfights, low blows, insults, and temper tantrums. It was civil war– most of the Argentine rugby men play on French teams. The French captain, Raphael Ibanez, was yellow carded for trampling.

Presidents don’t have time to mope. The 24-hour total transportation strike has dragged on for six days of chaotic perturbations, disturbances, interruptions, and threats of resumption. Other public service sectors are growling. Air France will be on strike this week but then again, who can get to the airport?

French voters clearly chose the candidate who promised to free up energies and create a new dynamics. Before the economy could start moving forward it is pulled backwards by vested interests disguised as r√©sistance, futile squabbling masquerading as the defense of social justice, worn out Marxism throwing sand in the people’s eyes. A transportation strike is anathema to a modern economy.

Millions of individual steps forward are frustrated, every single project in the nation is congested. Instead of healthy activity, you get drudgery. Millions of small hopes are dashed.

Nicolas Sarkozy was not looking for an easy ride. “If it were easy to reform, he says, it would have been done before.” If he defends the general welfare against the brigades of class warfare it will be a small victory for democracy and a big hope for the future.

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