22 February 2011

La Politique, American Style

Dominique in the Lion’s Den: Strauss-Kahn and Delahousse

Ordinarily, the (extraordinary) American who pays attention to French presidential elections finds them refreshing. How swift and shiny is a French election, how like a sports car! The whole thing is over and done in a couple of months. The echo-chamber of so-called journalistic “analysis” and “commentary” is squeezed into a few weeks’ time here, and we’re not assaulted by campaign ads, either. Frequently, the candidates (and the journalists who cover them) actually talk more about issues than about strategies or personalities. And we are spared that agonizing build-up to the build-up that so many American candidates and reporters find absolutely engrossing: the months-in-advance buzz about whether Senator So-and-So’s trip to New Hampshire means she intends to run for President.

This weekend, we got a disturbing indication that the halcyon days of French presidential campaigns may be drawing to a close. France 2, one of the state-owned broadcast networks, heavily promoted its Sunday-evening interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist and current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Nearly 1 in 3 French viewers witnessed the dogged attempts of the evening-news anchor, Laurent Delahousse, to extract a confession: are you planning to run, are you thinking about running, are you planning to think of running?

Punting, with no bunting: Strauss-Kahn

Not unlike the typical American candidate in such circumstances, DSK (as he’s known) punted. Let’s face it: even in France, if you’re going to launch a campaign, you want to do so in a controlled environment, with maximum potential éclat. You’re not going to give it away as a freebie on somebody else’s TV show.

Delahousse nevertheless seemed surprised by DSK’s discretion, and for what seemed like an eternity, the anchor hammered away for any crumb of news that might fall. This was tedious in the extreme, and frustrating to Delahousse, too, it seems. In the next interview segment on the evening news, the anchor proceeded to ask Diane Kruger, the German movie star, whether she planned to run for president. “The question has been on my mind all weekend,” Delahousse joked, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer.”*

What effect would a Kruger candidacy have on French elections?
(Pictured here with Liam Neeson in the movie she was plugging on France 2.)

This was bad enough, but for the next news cycle, in every outlet of the print and electronic press, we had to endure endless reporting and analysis of the interview: what DSK didn’t say, why he didn’t say it, what it would have meant if he had said anything, and how significant it is that so many of us tuned in to hear him say nothing at all, even though the first round of the French presidential elections is more than a year away. (Unexamined was the larger question why anybody should care about any of this.) Need I point out, this is exactly how these stories play out in the American press.

The non-story of the non-announcement was never my favorite part of political journalism, when I worked at CBS: I always felt I was being played for a sucker.** Yes, it would be a wonderful scoop if Senator So-and-So declared his candidacy in the middle of your interview; it would be an equally wonderful scoop if monkeys flew out of his butt.

American politicians have particular incentives for protracting the period prior to the announcement of the candidacy, mostly having to do with fundraising. First, they want to see whether they can raise any funds, a time-consuming inquiry that consists of calling in every political favor they have ever done anybody, while carefully avoiding the too-blunt question, “How much cash will you give me if I run?” The second concern is campaign-finance rules, which don’t apply until a candidate launches his campaign.

These concerns aren’t usually pertinent to French politicians, and DSK would be wise to worry more about overstaying his welcome with the electorate, who will hear more than enough about him in 2012, provided he does run.

However, the winner of the last presidential election here was Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed “Sarko l’Américain” for his brash personal style and his celebrity status, as well as his free-market faith (rare in this country) and his hands-on approach to governing. Apparently Sarkozy’s success in 2007 opened the door to a more American-style political culture. Quel dommage.

President Sarkozy, expected to run for a second term, has received
one high-profile endorsement already.

DSK isn’t playing this game — at least, not yet. He’s a thoughtful pragmatist, a status that probably cost him the Socialist nomination in 2006.*** Along with Martine Aubry, he’s one of his party’s designated grownups; since she’s presumed likely to run for president herself, I’m not sure where that leaves him.****

During his interview with Delahousse, DSK was considerably more forthcoming about the IMF, which, as he kept explaining patiently, is the only job he has right now. But it’s not one that lends itself to sexy, exciting, headline-making pronouncements, on any country’s news programs, and in the many hours of follow-up analyses of the interview, we heard plenty about DSK’s earth-shattering admission that, yes, he does talk over his career moves with his wife, and he values her advice — but I heard not a single word about DSK’s policies at the IMF.

Thus we may be looking at the dawn of a new era, when an American’s sole remaining comfort when following French election campaigns is the notion that none of it matters very much outside the borders of France. That notion is false, of course, and yet how quaint it all seems, like a comic opera, and don’t the candidates have such curious, musical names! Ségolène Royal, why it’s practically an aria already!

Everybody sing!

*NOTE: For the record, Diane Kruger is not running for President of France. She does, however, speak excellent French.

**My next-least-favorite political stories were the “horse-race” updates: who’s ahead, who’s falling behind, yadda yadda. Campaign advisers love these stories, and so do many journalists — all you have to do is look at a poll, which is so much easier than reporting on the issues. Nobody, not even Dan Rather, could ever explain to me why such stories were worth our time, although I have heard the theory that they help to generate excitement among potential voters, and may lead to improved turnout at the polls.

***DSK is also Jewish, which makes him a target already for far-right nationalists (and even a few rank-and-file members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire); and the fact that he’s currently running a global financial entity is going to pose certain problems in any future campaigns. This may explain why he enjoys Sarkozy’s support in that particular job. How much easier it would be to campaign against the Jewish head of an international cabal of bankers! (Not that Sarkozy would ever, ever pander to far-right nationalists, of course.)

****Other (presumed) likely candidates for the Socialist nomination include the dysfunctional ex-couple Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, the former party secretary who did such a godawful job in 2007 that Royal broke up with him.

ADDENDUM: Because the French are not a trivial people, we also spent the weekend discussing Boris Boillon, the first French Ambassador to Tunisia, post-revolt, who is expected to lose his job any minute now, since he undiplomatically insulted a group of Tunisian reporters. Many French citizens believe that the 41-year-old Boillon, pictured here in an unretouched recent photo (seriously), would be better suited to other kinds of work, but you’ll have to guess precisely what jobs they proposed.

CORRECTION: The original post incorrectly stated that Boillon had already been fired; he remains the French Ambassador to Tunisia, for the time being.

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