Hatred in French politics

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 17 Jul 2019

Personal rivalries among top politicians can explain the current shape of French politics, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I am currently reading French authors Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme’s book Hatred: the Sarkozy Years. It is not as impressive as a previous book, A President Should Not Say This, which relied on extensive weekly conversations with former French president François Hollande. However, it is both entertaining and instructive in its analysis of the career of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The two authors are among the stars of the left-wing French newspaper Le Monde, and their books are fine examples of investigative journalism. Their main thesis in the Sarkozy book is quite simple: that the collapse of the French right cannot be understood without realising how much its leaders hated each other. This hatred had nothing to do with ideological divergences. Instead, it was about a clash of egos and between people who did not abide by any ethical principles.

The book relies on interviews with many stars of the French right. However, the backbone of the narrative is the testimony of the two journalists’ “teacher,” Jérome Lavrilleux, the de facto boss of Sarkozy’s second presidential elections campaign. He organised meetings, monitored the other side, mobilised activists, and more or less decided who would have access to the candidate.

He was a man of the shadows and the main aide of one of the right’s top figures, Jean-François Copé, who unsuccessfully tried to become Sarkozy’s heir. Lavrilleux decided to tell the two journalists the “facts of life” about the Sarkozy campaign and explain why the right lost the apparently unlosable presidential elections in France in 2017. This is not because it was muffled by current French President Emmanuel Macron or by leader of the extreme-right National Front Party Marine Le Pen, he says. It was because the right’s leaders hated each other with an intensity that has “stunned” the authors.

I tend to believe that their astonishment is fake. Everyone familiar with the relations between the contenders for the leadership of a French political party knows that hatred runs deep. I discovered this, thanks to friends, during the fratricidal war between former president Jacques Chirac and former presidential candidate Edouard Balladur well before the 1995 presidential elections. Some old scores from 1995 were even settled in 2012, with tremendous consequences.

The stories I heard were shocking. Take, for instance, the general rule that the scandal that ruins your chances of becoming president usually stems from leaks organised by rivals from your own “political family”. This is true, but those leaks can also be from supposed friends.

However, hatred is not the sole explanation for the disaster of 2017. Hatred in French politics is as old as the struggle for the succession to former president Georges Pompidou in the 1970s. Something should be added that is strongly suggested by the authors’ narrative. The main novelty was the fact that Sarkozy, who could be brutal and astonishingly vulgar, though a master of the art of humiliation was not actually a “killer”.

In this he was unlike Chirac, who, affable as he was and a master of the art of human contacts who cared about his subordinates and knew how to assist them, also knew how to politically kill a rival and would do so with impressive resolve. He politically killed former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, for example, as well as former presidential candidates and prime ministers Raymond Barre and Edouard Balladur. Their mistakes also helped him.

Those who were humiliated by Sarkozy, however, survived the humiliation, at least for a while. But they never forgave him for it – to be honest some things are unforgivable – and they tried to exact their revenge.

Chirac, to the best of my knowledge, never let hate blind him. But François Baroin, a former minister under Sarkozy who talked to the authors, says that Fillon, the right’s candidate in 2017 and a former prime minister, committed crucial mistakes in his bid for power. The only explanation for these is hatred, he says.

Another factor in French politics is the fact that the same people tend to remain on the scene for a very long time. In the US, those who lose a presidential election tend to immediately disappear. This is not the case in France, where the same faces return year after year. The rotation is slow. The result is a kind of “accumulation” of passion and hatred.

Another factor that might help us to understand why hatred in French politics became so destructive was the fact that Hollande, who decisively won the 2012 elections, swiftly became a very unpopular president. As early as September 2012, people on the right of French politics believed their party would automatically win the next elections as a result.

The stakes were high, as the one who emerged as leader would not only be the party’s chief but would almost certainly also be the next president. The candidates lacked any sense of danger. After Sarkozy, there was no natural leader on the right. Competition was necessary to find one, and that competition ignited further hatred.

I do not want to tell the whole story of the book, though this is riveting. However, it is not entirely convincing. It is too dependent on Lavrilleux’s testimony for my taste. The authors often provide other versions of what happened stemming from other interviews, and it can be fascinating to see how the same interactions or the same events can be described differently by the different people who were present. This proves that bad feelings played a role in interpretations of what others were saying or doing.

Yet, something is lacking, nevertheless. Perhaps my uneasiness is to be explained by the authors’ reliance on Lavrilleux. The book can appear to be a play with very few actors, with almost no impact from the surrounding environment.

There are no good guys in the book, with the relative exception of Lavrilleux, former minister Jean-Louis Debré and former minister Rachida Dati, but a bad one clearly emerges who goes beyond all the others for nastiness, and this is François Fillon. This was surprising to me, but the authors’ arguments are convincing in their presentation of him as a loner who was also spiteful, petty, greedy, power-hungry and lazy. Yet, they also often tell us that the ruling party MPs actually quite liked him, though they provide no further details. This should have been explained.

The book is a formidable lesson in practical French politics: I learnt many tricks from it, particularly the importance of communication and timing. In politics, you must be a chess player, a poker player, a kind of spymaster, a sprinter and a marathon man. You must learn from your mistakes and know how to seize opportunities. You cannot win elections without these “virtues,” though the art of government is another story.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hatred in French politics

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