It’s hard to think of anything Nicolas Sarkozy could have done worse in his handling of le scandale (also known, somewhat unimaginatively, as Twittergate) these past two weeks. What started as vague Internet rumors and idle post-cheese course dinner-party gossip on the love life of the French president and his third wife—safely insulated from any media airing by some of the most stringent privacy laws this side of Beijing—has morphed into a major political crisis, threatening, as no mere opinion poll ratings could, Sarkozy’s bid for reelection in 2012.
The facts, if you can call them that, are a couple of blog and Twitter posts, soon alluded to on France’s answer to the HuffPost, LePost.fr, suggesting that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had allegedly moved in with award-winning singer Benjamin Biolay (who once worked on one of her albums) while her husband, supposedly on the rebound, was said to have been giving the benefit of his presidential experience to environment minister (and French karate champion) Chantal Jouanno.
The rumors, carefully avoided by the mainstream French media, fully aware of guaranteed dire judicial and political fallout, then surfaced in the British tabloid press, which went at it with glee, even a certain insouciance. Sarkozy and Madame have from the start been a staple of the London popular newspapers, a piñata sent from heaven to revive flagging sales and casual anti-French prejudice (tinged with envy: any poll run by the Sun or the Daily Mail would find its readers convinced that the elevator-shoed poison dwarf ruling France has more fun and a better sex life than 90 percent of them). British tabloids have bid at auction on nude pictures of Carla Bruni, run endless jokes on Sarkozy’s lack of height (and Carla’s occasional “wardrobe malfunctions,” Fleet Street code for visible lack of undergarments), commented on Sarko’s custom-made low-slung lecterns, alleged that he planned to slight the queen at the last D-Day celebrations (with more than a bit of help from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on that one), have seemingly never quoted La Bruni’s name without mentioning her string of famous ex-lovers (Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Donald Trump . . .), and in general been having what they see as clean, harmless fun.
So everyone was flabbergasted when, far from ignoring the whole brouhaha in dignified fashion, the Elysée mounted a campaign against what Pierre Charon, a senior Elysée press adviser and old political pal of Sarkozy’s, described as “an international plot by foreign financial interests, aimed at sabotaging the 2011 French presidency of the G20.” “These rumors have cropped up in coordinated fashion,” charged Thierry Herzog, the Sarkozys’ lawyer. “Someone must be behind this.”
There followed, in the age-old French tradition, a witch hunt. A blogger and the web editor of Le Journal du Dimanche who had alluded to the rumors were promptly sacked by their publisher, Hachette-Filipacchi Presse, which happens to be owned by a crony of Sarkozy’s, Arnaud Lagardère, the missile and aerospace manufacturer. (Hachette-Filipacchi is a perilous place to mention the president’s private affairs: The editor of Paris Match, the celebrity weekly, was similarly fired two years ago for having run a picture of Cécilia Sarkozy, the president’s previous wife, with the man she’s now remarried to, on a New York street.) Hachette-Filipacchi also requested a judicial inquiry into the “fraudulent entry of data into a computer network,” strongly believed to have been pushed for by Sarkozy. Charon, meanwhile, settling some private scores, accused former justice minister Rachida Dati, now exiled in disgrace to Brussels as a Euro-MP, of spreading the rumors (probably true, but then they were on everyone’s lips) and even manufacturing them (unlikely). The glamorous Dati hit back, posing as a victim (“My phones were tapped!”) and threatening lawsuits of her own.
If the hoped-for effect was the cowing of the French press, predictably, for all but the Elysée grand strategists, it backfired. Timid (and underfinanced) the Paris newspapers may be, but all this legal activity gave them the perfect excuse: They reported on the cases, never (heaven forbid!) the actual rumors. By early April, all but the names in play were the subject of French front page stories, cover features, and TV news flashes. The last veil was then ripped by Biolay himself, egged on, it was said, by Carla Bruni, who sued France’s respected but little-watched international news channel France 24 for mentioning him in a review of the foreign press coverage, and thereby put himself in the glare of any media attention he had until then managed to escape.
By this time Sarko, having first dismissed at length a Sky news interviewer during a visit to London (“I don’t have even half a second to consider these absurdities . . . ”), found himself reduced to sending his wife onto the morning radio talk shows and such friendly venues as Madame Figaro, the women’s supplement of Paris’s most respectful daily, to decry, in pained but restrained tones, the vulgarity and cheapening nature of it all. Bruni, who has more experience of the foreign celebrity media than her husband, laughed off any suggestion of conspiracy, protested that Dati was “a friend,” and denied that any police investigations had been ordered. (Unfortunately for her, Bernard Squarcini, the head of DCRI, French homeland security, contradicted her hours later.)
L’Affaire is by no means over. Last week Sarko, in Washington, was again quizzed, this time in a Katie Couric interview on Iran’s nuclear program. (Couric gave him a much easier time than she did, say, Sarah Palin: “It must get slightly annoying?” she commiserated about the coverage of his private life.) Even austere newspapers like Le Monde have run many column inches on the consequences for Sarkozy’s reelection in two years. “Can the president keep his cool?” is the implicit question.
As with every ailing regime, leaks now gush out, in print, of every instance of Sarkozy weakness—how he was nearly incapacitated by his 2007 divorce; how he has surrounded himself with courtiers who daren’t warn him of obvious mistakes. (Pierre Charon was described to me by an Elysée aide as “un amuseur, someone who, 500 years ago, would have worn a parti-colored costume and a hat with bells on around the king.”) What makes all this unfortunate is that Sarkozy is still sensible in his political decisions—reforming France’s cum-ber-some state pension system and, abroad, pushing for tougher sanctions on Iran, to cite just two. But unlike most of his predecessors (recall Mitterrand who for 14 years hid the existence of two parallel families, in addition to his legal one, from the public, using the vast resources of the French state), Sarkozy is no cynic. If you prick him, he does bleed. And if you wrong him, he shall want revenge.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political journalist in Paris and a frequent contributor to the London Sunday Telegraph and the BBC.