A Conversation in Paris
As the Socialists take over.
Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By ROGER KAPLAN
It was a grand election, and the Socialists swept the field. They won the presidency and the parliament, on top of which they already controlled most of the regional councils—in Burgundy and Poitou and Brittany and the other ancient provinces of France—along with the councils in the smaller “departments” created after the Revolution, which got quite a boost when Paris went on a decentralizing kick in the 1980s. That happened the last time the Socialists had it all, when François Mitterrand was president, and what a show it was!
Well (my interlocutor continued), you have to look at it this way, monsieur. I didn’t vote Socialist, never have, never will. I am a man of the right. But you have to hand it to them—they won. François Hollande is president. The National Assembly is untouchable for five years. They can do whatever they want, just as in Mitterrand’s day, way back when your Reagan was in the White House!
Actually, though, they cannot do much. They lack the means. They lack, especially, the money. They are not the absolute masters of France, for the simple reason that their predecessors, even as they turned over power to the regions and the departments, also turned over power to the technocrats in Brussels, those Dutchmen and Germans who count every pfennig, who ask what you did with every last centime! As to our francs, the Germans gave us euros in return, and now they tell us there are no more.
Well, monsieur, you point out it was Jacques Delors who created the euro, Mitterrand’s first finance minister, the president of the European Commission in Brussels. And you ask me if it was not Hollande and his friends who are now sitting so pretty in the National Assembly who insisted on the euro. More Europe, they intoned, one currency! And, I remind you, the Germans said it was a terrible idea. They were happy with their deutsche mark. They wish now they had listened to the Danes and the British. But they let us—our brilliant, elite-educated fatheads, first in their class and all that—convince them the common currency would be best for Europe. And now we have lost control of our money, and the Germans pull the strings.
I exaggerate. Democracy, federal institutions, fair play—that is what the Germans say we do not understand. They keep explaining that if we want to play our own game, we must obey our own rules. The money we need, the Greeks need, the Italians and the Spaniards need, the Portuguese—they will not allow the bonds to be issued unless these poor countries respect the Stability Pact. Monsieur, it is a scandal, and I say this as a man who did not vote for the Socialists, that the Germans should make everyone suffer for the sake of their account books.
Even so, the Socialists must be happy to have won it all. They fought a fine campaign, only a few hiccups. There was, of course, that unpleasantness with Ségolène Royal, their last presidential candidate, their once and never President Royal! The poor lady—far be it from me to feel sorry for so elegant and accomplished a lady, who is still president of the Regional Council of Poitou-Charentes, no small bag of beans, monsieur—and the notor-ious tweet, but what do you expect, monsieur, les femmes . . . Ah, what happened, exactly? Well, only the most daring papers have reported it, but François Hollande, father of Ségolène Royal’s four children, was embarrassed at the thought of having her not only in the assembly but even president of the assembly. He did not like it because, well, he still nurtured a grudge against her, for throwing him out of hearth and home.
She did that because, yes, I know, he was carrying on an affair with Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist at Paris Match, which always has pictures of celebrities in bikinis at Cannes and Monaco. Ségolène is not a woman to be scorned, monsieur, and I’m told she found solace with Jean-Marc Ayrault, the mayor of Nantes, who is now President Hollande’s prime minister! That was some years ago, you understand, but wounds of the heart . . .
So Valérie—the Trierweiler woman, whom your papers have dubbed the first girlfriend—thought it would not only be awkward, it would be intolerable. Inadmissible! Well, maybe we should have had her around when the Germans forced us to accept Balancing the Books as a condition of the euro. I ask you, monsieur, who balances books in Europe, outside the Germans? The Letts. The Estonians. The Swiss. And the Swiss are not even members of the European Union!
Well, Valérie Trierweiler—she kept her husband’s name when she threw him out, a sordid story of relations turned sour with her own family, a matter of money I believe—first lady of France since her François’s great victory (by more than a million votes) over the vulgarian Sarkozy—and I speak to you as a man of the right, monsieur—she did what women did in the days of Louis XIV: She attacked her rival! Came right out and slapped her, in the modern way, of course. She sent a tweet saying what a pity this woman might win in La Rochelle—this Ségolène Royal, endorsed by the Socialist party high command and Hollande himself—while her opponent, a good man, deserved to win.
How did François take it? Well, in what he passed off as a casual remark, he said it would be so nice to have Ségolène as president of the assembly; it would bring back memories of their youth, when Mitterrand was king, I mean president, and all the world was theirs to reinvent. Now it scarcely matters, for Ségolène is history. She lost and retired to Poitou.
And in our republic, of course, there is no first lady or first girlfriend. In fact, in the thousand years of the French monarchy, no woman held formal power. Yet our new president’s mistress goes beyond what Madame de Montespan ever would have dared! Alas, poor France! For this we elect an Assembly committed to gender equality, multiculturalism, fraternity, solidarity, socialism?
Still, to be fair, give them a chance. Valérie has her taxpayer-provided office in the Elysée Palace, with her taxpayer-paid research staff, and she can go right on being a journalist, and maybe we will not hear from her for a while, and the president can concentrate on the euro and Greece.
Well, the Socialists will do what they can, if the Germans let them. In a way, it is a good thing the right lost, monsieur, because frankly, the right, in its present state, could use some time in the tank. Mind you, they will regret being so hard on Sarkozy. He may have been an impulsive neurotic who wore platform shoes to try to keep up with his wife (and everyone else), but he understood this (and I say it as a Frenchman): The Germans have a point. If they pay for all those other countries, what do you think will happen? Stimulus? Growth? You will kiss growth goodbye forever, because the Germans will wreck their own locomotive, the only one that has a shot at pulling us out of this mess.
And President Hollande knows it. Of course, he could not say so out loud during the campaign, because he would have been attacked on his left by that Trotskyist goon Jean-Luc Melenchon, with his Communist troops. True, they traded insults anyway. The Socialists called Mélenchon a rich boy playing red, while he called Hollande a stooge to the banks. Mélenchon got slaughtered, along with Marine Le Pen of the far right. Hollande and his boys pulled out all the stops to block her, but her National Front won’t go away. She will be watching the president’s every move and screaming that France is going to the dogs—and to the Arabs and the Africans who keep pouring in. But that’s another story.
No, Hollande is a shrewd fox. He said he was normal compared with that wild man we had, and look at how he lives and plays his cards. He said he would find the money to pay for more teachers and free hospitals and no doubt take care of our foreign affairs. Not that foreign policy came up during the campaign—except the Greeks and the Germans, of course—too embarrassing, and anyway no one talks about foreign policy in France except the president. It is his domain. Untouchable. Like his arrangements with les femmes.
Roger Kaplan is a frequent contributor.