In the second post in his blog The Franco-American Daily Deconstructionist; History and Culture in Everyday Life, John Hess asks “Are you all as bored by the Clearstream affair as I am? If so, then excellent, this blog is just for you!”
Clearstream: Clients, Patrons, and French Political Parricide
by John Hess
For those of you who prefer reading Hello! and Closer, here’s a one–sentence summary: in 2004, in the course of an investigation into a kickback scandal involving the sale of French-built warships to Taiwan, a forged document linking Nicolas Sarkozy (among other prominent politicians) to the malversations was leaked to the prosecutor, allegedly at the behest of Dominique de Villepin, then the Interior Minister and a protégé of President Jacques Chirac.
(Whew! I did it!)
The details are all over the more serious sort of newspaper, and as promised, I shall not bore you with them. Buy Le Monde if you’re interested (it’s cheaper than Hello!, and you get to find out what Left Bank intellectuals did during their holidays in the sun).
What’s really great about this whole affair is the element of pure political assassination, which is unusual in the contemporary Western world, and is more reminiscent of the later Roman Republic than of a modern democracy. Sarkozy and de Villepin are, after all, from the same political party.
Clearstream really began in 1995, when Nicolas Sarkozy, originally a protégé of Chirac, betrayed his erstwhile patron by supporting Edouard Balladur’s rival bid for the presidency. Balladur lost, and both Balladur and most of his key supporters were exiled to the political equivalent of Siberia by the victorious Chirac; the satirical TV show Guignols de l’info portrayed him as John Travolta’s hit man from Pulp Fiction, knocking off Balladur’s entourage one by one, including Sarkozy.
Most of the balladuriens never managed to slip out of their concrete boots and stayed put at the bottom of the Seine, but the buoyant Sarkozy, with his ability to handle the media and generate popular support, proved indispensable, and muscled his way back into the heart of right wing French politics, gaining a ministerial post in 2002 at the start of Chirac’s second presidential term. But for the chiraquiens, Sarkozy was only suffered, not forgiven. During the course of 2004, Sarkozy’s relations with Chirac degraded to new lows, as Sarkozy managed to get himself elected as leader of the political party that Chirac had himself created; and Chirac began grooming de Villepin as his successor, naming him to replace Sarkozy as Minister of the Interior. And, coincidentally or not, 2004 was the year that the Clearstream forgeries were produced. Much of the energy of the three year remainder of Chirac’s presidency was wasted on other fruitless efforts to stymie Sarkozy’s inexorable rise, so as to clear the way for the president’s adoptive “political son”, de Villepin, a brilliant but otherwise politically ungifted man.
This storyline would have been quite familiar to the readers of Cularolife.com, had the internet existed in the first century AD, because it’s a Roman, Latin story: the story of patrons and clients, and the personal favors, betrayals, and vengeances that pass between them; of adoptive heirs and lethal political manoeuvrings.
Anglo–Saxons are used to tribal politics: liberals against conservatives, socialists against free-marketers, etc. Personal rivalries exist (e.g., Brown/Blair), but they are subsidiary to the considerations of the interests or ideologies of the political tribe. In France, it is the opposite, for the Roman tradition of patronage politics is still dominant. Political parties are more like “a loose coalition of personalised alliances, in which everyone belongs to someone.” Ideology is much talked-about, but it’s the networks that really count, which determine who gets access to the governmental goodies. Thus the importance of respecting the patronal hierarchies – and the depth of the anger of the patron when betrayed by the client.
When one considers that Chirac catapulted himself to the top of the French political right by betraying and subsequently destroying his political patron, Valéry Giscard-D’Estaing, it seems fair enough that he should be deprived of the right to name his political heir by the betrayal of one of his own clients.
Now, stay tuned for the inevitable coming drama: who will betray Sarkozy in the eternal quest for the fruits of power?