Geopolitics

Lunch At Elysée: Sarkozy's High-Brow Charm Offensive

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is stuck with an approval rating below 30 percent. Will his weekly lunches with the cream of Paris “civil society” help change his image?

Sarkozy, shown with the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, likes to mingle with French intellectuals.
Sarkozy, shown with the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, likes to mingle with French intellectuals.
Raphaëlle Bacqué

PARIS - Last Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a lunch date scheduled with a journalist and two writers. Up until that morning, the guests, political chronicler Eric Zemmour, writer Denis Tillinac and novelist Yann Moix, had imagined that between military intervention in Libya and the rise of the far right in local French elections, the president would be too busy to attend. But Sarkozy arrived on time, relaxed, smiling, and even informal, "as if we were meeting in a restaurant," said Tillinac.

Over the last six months, the president has regularly met with writers, intellectuals and artists, never once cancelling one of these dates. It's his time to relax and unplug. These meetings are a chance for Sarkozy to seduce those who arrive imagining him uncultured, but come away praising his "youthfulness', "energy" and "simplicity". They are Sarkozy's way of penetrating the Paris elite that hold their nose up to his controversial politics, but continue to watch him with interest and curiosity.

Patrick Besson, writer and chronicler from the weekly news magazine Le Point, who was one of the guests a few weeks ago, amusingly sums up these moments of presidential recreation: "I had felt like I was his gym instructor, without the gym".

Last Wednesday, the three guests were also joined by former politician Alain Carignon, who despite spending several years of political scandal and prison, has remained a close friend of the head of state.

It is Carignon, alongside presidential advisor and former journalist Catherine Pégard, who has been responsible these past few months for bringing this slice of Paris, regarded by those in power as representative of "civil society", to the presidential Elysée palace. Pégard, keen to get an eclectic mix of guests, has invited authors like Marc Dugain, Alexandre Jardin, Dominique Bona, as well as François-Guillaume Lorrain the cinema critic for the weekly newspaper Le Point, and historian Evelyne Lever.

But Carignon tends to select people he identifies as being more clearly aligned with the political right. His choices are usually male, most often editorialists, academics, and high-ranking civil servants; guests from a macho world "far from the dinners that Carla (Bruni-Sarkozy) organizes for him," sums up Tillinac.

Obviously, given this mix of curious intellectuals and potential political supporters, the outcome of the lunch is never sure. When Sarkozy's guests exchange stories, they often discover that the president has his pet topics and repeats the same complaints about the press at several lunches. He might say, "Did you see the coverage in Le Point? Can it really be that bad? Honestly!" Or this merciless attack against his predecessors: "Mitterrand and Chirac came to power when they were already too old and worn out. They didn't want to reform anything!"

One guest, the writer Alexandre Jardin notes, "Despite his clear determination, Sarkozy sometimes doesn't catch the deeper meaning of things." But guests rarely leave the president's residence without being a little dazzled by him. For a head of state who has gone down as the most unpopular president in 50 years, these moments of charm cannot be understated.

Last Wednesday, the conversation at the president's lunch table turned to politics. While, it has to be noted that guest Yann Moix prudently abstained from any type of partisan talk, Denis Tillinac and Eric Zemmour waded in. Tillinac is one those who discreetly frets over the "bohemian, bourgeois influence" of the president's wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. When she pushed her husband to defend the French minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, after far-right politician Marine Le Pen accused him of promoting the prostitution of young boys in his book "Bad Life," he was among those who told the president "with that, you lost 500,000 Catholic votes."

Zemmour is a formidable debater. He is even more talkative than Sarkozy, and much further to the right. The two men have known each other for more than 20 years and address one another informally. "But I didn't see him for his first three years in office," says Zemmour, who criticized the president not long ago for Americanizing France.

Libya was the first disagreement between Sarkozy and Zemmour. The journalist was against military intervention and any form of humanitarian aide, while the president prided himself on initiating action against "a caricature of a regime," in an act that he hopes might restore France's luster in the Mediterranean.

Next, talk moved into immigration, the thorn in the president's relationship with many academics, especially since his speech in Grenoble last July in which he targeted Romanian gypsies.

The party also discussed the official national debate on Islam, which the president's U.M.P. party had launched. Zemmour spoke, according to the other guests, of the large influx of foreigners to France, and the fact that hundreds of suburbanites are already moving to the countryside to "flee the blacks and the Arabs."

"It's (Zemmour's) obsession," said his dining companions, somewhat embarrassed by the discourse. His guest's comments however provided Sarkozy the opportunity to say, "The wave of democratization in Arab countries is precisely one of the solutions to limit immigration!"

The talk then turned to the next French presidential elections in 2012. It's a subject that the president rarely avoids, though he sidesteps definitive responses. His guests might just as easily hear him say, "Carla fears that I am not going to run… " as have him give the outlines for reforms he imagines for a possible second term.

Sarkozy doesn't seem to believe in the possibility that the director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will run for president, and when he brings up a Socialist Party adversary he mainly speaks of party chief Martine Aubry.

Does Sarkozy fear the effects of his unpopularity? He never brings it up, except to lash out at the press. But he can't ignore the fact that the situation couldn't be more risky. "He sees too many people not to be aware," said Alain Carignon. But kings rarely believe they can fall.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Greek govt

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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