Walker's World: Sarkozy's new-old France

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  May 17, 2007 at 3:56 PM
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PARIS, May 17 (UPI) -- There was an acutely symbolic moment in the farewell of Jacques Chirac from the Elysee Palace, where he had lived and ruled France for the past 12 years. The young successor Nicolas Sarkozy, who had once dated Chirac's daughter, too charged with an almost bristling energy, steering the elderly Chirac to the car that would take him to retirement.

In fact, the limousine took Chirac to a luxury apartment on the left bank of Paris, overlooking the Louvre and the River Seine. It has been lent to the former president by the family of his old friend Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese leader whose assassination launched the latest round of his country's tragedy.

Heading shortly for a vacation in Morocco, Chirac knows there is one more hurdle to overcome -- the querulous magistrates who still want to question him about the scandal over the abuse of state-owned apartments that has already secured a conviction against Chirac's former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. Chirac managed to squirm out of the last criminal inquiry when the Constitutional Court ruled that charges could not be brought against a sitting president. Now that he is retired the case re-opens, unless Sarkozy decides that the old man should go free, in the name of solidarity between presidents.

We shall see. There is bad blood between them. Chirac tried to crush Sarkozy after the ambitious young politician defected in the 1990s to another presidential contender. But perhaps Sarkozy will judge that his election triumph is victory enough by reaching out to some socialist to join his government, like Medecins sans Frontieres founder Bernard Kouchner, who is tipped to be foreign minister.

But that is not the drama that gripped much of France, as they watched Sarkozy's wife Cecilia briefly but visibly flinch as he gently brushed his hand on her face as he took charge of the Elysee Palace Wednesday morning. A little later, she kissed him on the cheek. But she had not bothered to vote for him in the final round of the elections and memorably told an interviewer last year "I don't see myself as first lady -- the whole idea bores me -- I am not politically correct."

Sarkozy first met the lovely former model Cecilia, daughter of a Russian pianist father and a Spanish mother, when as mayor of the plush Paris suburb of Neuilly he married her to another man. They met again some years later, fell dramatically in love, and married. But in May 2005, when Sarkozy was already campaigning for the presidency, she left him for another man. Photos of the couple were published in the weekly Paris Match, which led to the controversial dismissal of the editor for breaching their privacy.

Gordon Brown, the man Sarkozy will be dealing with as the next British prime minister, was startled when Sarkozy and Cecilia called on him earlier this year and held hands in his office while Sarkozy explained that their separation had been a sudden folly and that they were delighted to be back together again. Such intimacies are not normally shared in the dignified office of Britain's dour and deeply private chancellor of the exchequer.

All of this means that the long French tradition of public silence over the private lives of their leaders is visibly breaking. The celebrity culture and the age of gossip have come to Paris, along with the first small child, the 10-year-old son Louis of Nicolas and Cecilia, to have lived in the Elysee for decades.

It is a new era in France, of which the new president's public infidelities (he briefly took up with a pretty journalist while his wife was away) is but one symbol. The country feels pregnant with change, bracing for the kinds of reform that Sarkozy has promised, like the promise to abolish taxes on overtime worked beyond the usual 35-hour week.

"Order and authority is needed," Sarkozy declared in his first presidential speech, just after he had been given custody of the codes to launch France's nuclear weapons.

"We must rehabilitate the values of work, effort, merit and respect," he declared, a sturdily old-fashioned theme to contrast with the very modern marriage he has brought to the Elysee Palace.

"Never have the risks of inertia been so great," he warned, and went on to pledge that he would "defend the independence of France, the identity of France."

Traditional policies thus meet a very 21st-century presidential style; the cult of celebrity and the end of privacy combine with a France of the former values of work and order, authority and respect. This is something that France has not known before, just as the country has never been ruled by the son of an immigrant and one so deeply and publicly moved by France's history and its martyrs.

France has never before had a president whose first decision was to announce that henceforth every French schoolchild would begin the year by hearing read aloud the last letter of Guy Moquet, a young communist resistance fighter shot in a mass execution by the Nazis in 1941.

"You who remain, be worthy of us, the 27 who are about to die," he cried out as the order was given to fire.

So perhaps this is the new France, a blend of old and new, in the grip of Sarkozy's revolution for continuity, his determination to revive what he sees as the best of the past.

It is a theme that will strike a chord around the world as France's latest blockbuster movie, "Paris, je t'aime" ("Paris, I love you"), comes to the English-speaking world this summer.

"Paris, je t'aime" was made quite deliberately as a film to do for Paris what "Love, Actually" and "Notting Hill" did for London. Unashamedly romantic and nostalgic, it stars just about every French star the world has heard of, from Juliette Binoche to Natalie Portman to Gerard Depardieu, and throws in Marianne Faithfull, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins and Elijah Wood.

Directed by Claudie Ossard, who had a worldwide hit with "Amelie" in 2001, a saccharine but charming film about a young waitress in a Montmartre cafe, the new movie has a series of story lines that blend together, one for each district of Paris. With its title taken from one of Maurice Chevalier's famous songs of the past, it is a film of today designed to make the French feel good about themselves and to remind the world of what it has always deeply loved about Paris.

It is a film perfectly timed for the Sarkozy era. But it lasts less than two hours. Sarkozy has five years.

Topics: Elijah Wood
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