France: Pity the nation

I was looking for a short book to take on an aeroplane flight recently, and I picked up, more or less by chance, Catherine Graciet’s recent book Sarkozy/Khadafi. The book – well worth reading, by the way –  is a solid account of a whole range of alleged-but-likely scandals involving the Sarkozy “clan” with Libya over the last decade or so, culminating with a long discussion of the allegation that Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign was funded, in part, by Libya.

But it’s actually not so much that allegation in the book which is so dispiriting, although if true it would cause a political earthquake in France, as the constant succession of well-founded stories showing how various members of the “clan” enriched themselves, often through their government positions, and sometimes as the public expense It seems that everyone who has ever been involved with Sarkozy had their fingers in the Libyan pie, and almost all managed to pull out a few choice plums. As a portrait of a political class consumed by greed and opportunism, it’s hard to imagine anything more devastating or depressing.

But French politics was always corrupt, you may argue. Indeed, and individual corruption certainly did not begin with Sarkozy. But this is institutionalized, and so much more dangerous. It has its origins in two things. One was the laudable desire under Mitterrand to decentralize the French state. However well-meant, this created local baronies, ruled by politico-business cliques, who often used the resources of the area for personal gain, as well as political advancement. The other was the massive privatization programme of the last twenty years, which created an oligarchy that moves effortlessly between political office, government service and personal enrichment, often managing to do at least two of these at the same time. Indeed, the key figure in Catherine Graciet’s book in some ways is not Sarkozy himself, but the frog-like Claude Guéant, who began as a high-flying civil servant, took on a quasi-political role as Sarkozy’s trusted advisor, and finished as a Minister, apparently managing to combine that with the pursuit of Sarkozy’s (and his) private business interests.

No wonder people in France are so disgusted with their elites (you can’t even call them “political” elites any more, because the line between politics and personal enrichment has effectively disappeared). No wonder the National Front is doing so well.

“Pity the nation” wrote the Lebanese poet and novelist Kahil Gibran

… that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

… whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking”

He was thinking of Lebanon, of course. But he might just as well have been describing France.


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