PARIS, France — Beheadings and bad times aside, French rulers have basked in a protective glow emanating for 300 years from the Sun King, old Louis (“L’Etat, c’est moi”) XIV.
After Charles de Gaulle strode down a liberated Champs Elysees chest and nose first, and then designed the Fifth Republic, besmirching presidents amounted to lese majeste.
No longer. What with hound-dog investigating judges, fed-up politicos and a restive rabble, a series of dramatic skirmishes now reverberate in the highest places.
Jacques Chirac, still wildly popular two years after leaving the Elysee Palace, was charged with creating 21 phony jobs for cronies when he was mayor of Paris.
Charles Pasqua, Chirac’s powerful interior minister, was sentenced to a year of hard time over an African arms deal. In a news conference, he implicated the ex-president.
Pasqua was convicted of arranging a medal for Arcadi Gayadamak, a Russian arms dealer, in exchange for a large donation to an association of which he was vice president.
“Can anyone imagine for one minute that I would prostitute myself over a decoration?” he asked. Later, he said, “The real question is why, if this arms sale was illegal, didn’t Chirac stop it.”
Meantime, President Nicolas Sarkozy hauled former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin into court, saying he spread false corruption rumors as a campaign tactic. Even a suspended sentence would keep Villepin from public office.
As Sarkozy smarted from criticism that he was taking vengeance too far, a storm broke over the plum job about to go to his 23-year-old son, Jean, a second-year law student.
Sarkozy’s partisans on the Hauts de Seine council had tapped Jean to oversee La Defense, Europe’s largest skyscraper park, at the western edge of Paris.
Senior people in the president’s party decried what they called nepotism, an unseemly fast track for a controversial young man many call Prince Jean.
At last moment, Jean withdrew. He said he did not speak to the president about his decision. But, he added, he talked to his father.
When it was over, John Lichfield of the London Independent quoted an unnamed National Assemblyman in Sarkozy’s UMP party:
“It is infuriating and disturbing that the president cannot see the harm he is doing to himself. You have to remember that Sarkozy was elected as a man who would break down the barriers to success in France, the real barriers but also the invisible, psychological barriers.”
True enough, Sarkozy rose as a technocrat, the son of Hungarian parents, who campaigned on a promise to make France more egalitarian, freed from a narrow ruling elite.
“For the first time, France successfully stood up for its own values, against those of Mr. Sarkozy,” Lichfield concluded. “The French Republic 1, The Emperor Nicolas Sarkozy 0.”
The separate affaires have some opaque links. And Pasqua is ripping away the drapery in his usual bull-in-a-boudoir manner.
He threatened to sue the judge for excluding an intelligence memo he says justifies the medal: Gaydamak persuaded Serbs to free two French pilots held hostage in Bosnia.
He challenged authorities to ease the military-secrets rules that mask multiple scandals in recent years. France, he said, is sick with rumors while leaders escape scrutiny.
Le Journal du Dimanche interviewed Gaydamak, who is in Russia evading a six-year prison term as a mastermind of Angolagate, a half-billion-dollar arms deal that skirted an international embargo.
“Of course, Chirac and Villepin knew what I did,” he said. “This affair was totally fabricated to stop Charles Pasqua from running for president in 2002.”
Gaydamak said he did not know that his French partner would make a large contribution to the France-Afrique-Orient Association two days later.
As an aside, he said he spent $500,000 of his own money in freeing the pilots “which was no big deal for me.” Someone, it seems, scored big somewhere.
Angolagate defendants included Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, son of the late president, who was heavily fined with a suspended sentence.
Sarkozy, though not suspected of any illegality, is sullied by flying mud. He and Pasqua share a power base, the departement (state) of Hauts de Seine. He is the godfather; Pasqua, at 82, is the godgrandfather.
Journalist Jean-Francois Kahn observed that conspiracy theorists suspect Sarkozy used Pasqua to slime Villepin. This is wrong, he said, but that doesn’t stop speculation.
Together, these elements add up to a decided shift in how the French relate to power.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing never explained ties with his hunting buddy, Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, who allegedly gave him a fortune in diamonds.
Francois Mitterrand brushed off assorted scandals. When pressed, he evoked that time-honored French stonewall, raison d’etat. State secrets were sacrosanct.
Chirac waved aside repeated corruption charges that dogged his presidency. With his memoirs just out, at age 76, the still-popular statesman seemed to be off the hook.
But France’s complex judiciary has the power to investigate and take action independent from prosecutors.
“I remain calm and confident,” Chirac said. It is unlikely he would face time behind bars, and the case may never get to trial.
Still, the message is clear. This is no longer the Sun King’s France.