Sarkozy detention, a blow to French pride

Angst over the state of the republic, and life in general, is something of a perennial condition in France.

The monarchical majesty of the French presidency suffered an undignified blow early this year when paparazzi photographed the head of state, François Hollande, scurrying away on the back of a scooter from an assignation with a secret lover. This week it took an unprecedented new hit: Hollande’s predecessor in the Élysée Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose phone had been tapped by investigators, was taken into police custody. The detention of Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007 to 2012, lasted only 15 hours, but the spectacle, covered nonstop by television crews camped outside the offices of the judicial police in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, was an indecorous new low for an office created by Charles de Gaulle as both the acme of political power and the embodiment of France’s grandeur.

Yann Moix, a French writer and filmmaker, summed up a mood of dismay at the indignities visited on France’s once-lofty presidency in a television talk show dedicated to Sarkozy’s detention, which stretched so late into the night that the former president’s chauffeur went home without him. “The car of Nicolas Sarkozy is empty,”  Moix said after watching footage of the Citroën limousine, its back seat unoccupied, pulling away from the Nanterre police offices. “The Élysée Palace often seems empty these days, too. What happened to the republic?” Angst over the state of the republic, and life in general, is something of a perennial condition in France, where the present never seems to quite match up to the glories, real or imagined, of the past.

Fifth Republic

The French presidency, the centerpiece of the new constitutional and quasi-monarchical order put in place in 1958 and known as the Fifth Republic, was tailored by de Gaulle to fit his own outsize personality and sense of mission. This ensured that nobody else would ever fill its grandiose dimensions. “I had no predecessor and will have no successor,” de Gaulle observed. But the shrinking of the French presidency, a process built into its original design, has been accelerated of late not only by the banal misadventures in Hollande’s private life and an avalanche of judicial troubles for his right-wing predecessor, but also by a growing public disenchantment with all institutions of state.

Sarkozy, mindful that French voters would like their current and former presidents to be beyond reproach but generally suspect the worst of them, insisted in a television interview on Wednesday that he was not asking for “any special privileges or advantages.” But he denounced the accusations of corruption and influence-peddling as the “preposterous” fruit of a politically motivated vendetta. 

Former presidents have been investigated before and, in the case of Jacques Chirac, even convicted — in his case for embezzling public funds and breach of trust — but none had been formally detained until Sarkozy spent the better part of Tuesday in custody. And none, as far as the public knows, has suffered Sarkozy’s indignity of having private telephones tapped by investigators. During his time as president, Sarkozy often rejected the stuffy formality and rituals of his office, marrying a former model, Carla Bruni, after a whirlwind courtship and hanging out on yachts with wealthy friends, earning himself the title of “president bling-bling.”

Hollande, who ran on a promise to be a less showy “normal president,” has become so deeply unpopular that an opinion poll earlier this year suggested that voters would prefer even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who in 2011 faced charges, later dropped, of sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper in New York.

Hollande has disappointed by being too insipid. He stirred little moral outrage by cheating on his official and now ex-mistress, Valérie Trierweiler, but raised eyebrows by looking goofy wearing a silly helmet on the back of the scooter after a clandestine rendezvous with Julie Gayet, an actress. The French presidency does not involve a vow of celibacy but does demand a sense of decorum. Moreover, Hollande himself had vowed to show “exemplary behavior at every moment.” For voters on the left, Perrineau said, Hollande is “a pale copy of François Mitterrand,” a fellow Socialist. Though far from faithful to his wife and dogged for decades by scandals, including the staging of a fake assassination attempt against himself, Mitterrand displayed such hauteur in office that he satisfied expectations of a regal president. Voters on the right, meanwhile, “see all these scandals around Sarkozy and realize that he is not de Gaulle.” 

Sarkozy, who had hoped to make a political comeback and may still try, has outdone all his predecessors by becoming entangled in seven different “affaires,” as the French call the uproarious scandals that flare up in a blaze of news media attention and, more often than not, vanish in a mist of public bewilderment.

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