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L’Affaire to Remember

When a tryst is too much ... even for the French.


The impish headlines in Le Canard enchaîné, the satirical weekly that happens to be the most informative newspaper in France, rarely translate well. An exception might be the recent front-page lead: “SARKO EST D’UNE RUMEUR MASSACRANTE.” This play on the expression être d’une humeur massacrante—roughly, “angry enough to kill”—concerns the distemper of Nicolas Sarkozy over a certain rumeur massacrante (“foul rumor”) swirling around the French president’s two-year marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni. Born on Twitter and brought to global attention by a blog on the site of a French weekly, the tidbit about the first couple’s respective conjugal infidelities has come to dominate French politics. The rumor-about-the-affairs scandal even gets its own playful handle, l’affaire de la rumeur.

The facts of the gossip, such as they are, are largely irrelevant, though we can get to them shortly. The spark matters less than the fire. Barring a turnaround of the type this political talent is indubitably capable of pulling off, the Sarkozy era in France looks, for most purposes, to be over. Rumorgate is the quintessence of this president’s fatal flaws—a wandering eye, in fact, not foremost among them. His five-year term runs until 2012, but his sagging standing crimps his ability or desire to mount his promised revolution.

First, however, let’s sort through the silliness. On March 9, a certain Mikl07 posted a blog item on the site of the Journal du Dimanche, a Sunday newspaper, that elaborated on a series of tweets from previous weeks: “Breaking News! After Haiti, Chili and then Turkey, we understand that the Elyseé [Palace, the French White House] has been hit by an earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale.” It continued to say that Bruni was having an affair with pop star Benjamin Biolay, while the president, in turn, was cheating on her with his ecology minister, Chantal Jouanno, a former karate champion. The post disappeared a few hours later, replaced by a note from management that it was suppressed “due to the seriously detrimental nature of the remarks to private lives.”

Of course, nothing can ever be truly erased from the Web. Soon, the Sun in the U.K. ran with the story, as did outlets in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States. French media stayed mostly mum. The state-run international cable-news channel, France 24, did dare mention the allegations in a press review that cited foreign media. Biolay sued the channel for 20,000 euros, calling the report “inexact.” He won the case and 3,000 euros in damages. Now, the French press refers to the rumor without repeating it, assuming—no doubt correctly—that the French are familiar with the details through the Internet or by word of mouth.

The Élysée at first declined to comment. But the president isn’t known for his restraint. As the story refused to die, his men began to obsess about cabals and conspiracies. Thierry Herzog, the president’s lawyer, came out to blame “machinations ... either by agencies or by individuals who wish to destabilize the Sarkozy couple.” Brice Hortefeux, no less than the minister of interior, in the Canard, cited a “possible plot” by foreign powers to destabilize France itself.

This being France, the organs of the state were mobilized. The counterespionage agency, DCRI, was asked by the president’s office to investigate the source and subsequent spread of the rumor. Last month, Journal du Dimanche filed a complaint with the courts about “fraudulent introduction of data” onto its site. The paper also asked a 23-year-old journalist who worked on its website to resign, blaming him for the original post. Journal du Dimanche is owned by an industrial scion close to the president, Arnaud Lagardère. Everyone assumes the paper acted, ultimately, at the president’s behest to file the criminal complaint. Back in 2006, Lagardère fired the editor of another of his publications, Paris Match, after Sarkozy went ballistic over published pictures, including one on the magazine’s cover, of his then-wife, Cécilia, in New York with her lover Richard Attias, who is now her husband. All clear? Much of the French press is owned by rich friends of the president. So, out of fear for their jobs, as well as traditional deference to the Élysée, editors and reporters don’t pry too deeply into Sarko’s intimate affairs.

In a soap opera with many twists, there’s a subplot starring Rachida Dati that stands out. Born to Muslim parents, she was once the face of a changed France in the Sarkozy cabinet, a presidential confidante, and, it is reputed, onetime paramour. They fell out, Dati lost her job as minister of justice, and, last June, she went into exile as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels. The other day, according to my sources, she got a call in her government-issued Peugeot 607, staffed with bodyguards and a driver. It was the Élysée, convinced Dati was behind the leaking of the story of the double cheating, which she denies. As punishment, the car and security detail were pulled from her. In tears, she called a friend to send a car to pick her up. The story of her bullying got wide circulation—Canard headline: “RACHIDA’S 607 TURNS ON A STATE AFFAIR.”

The Sarkozy marriage isn’t the story, really. Per stereotype, the French are tolerant to a point, expecting no better from their leaders than they do from themselves. While they’ll consume tabloid fare and turn a book about the sex lives of politicians into a huge best seller (as happened a few years back), they also value discretion and decorum in their presidents—the last adjectives anyone would associate with the incumbent at the Élysée. For a while, it didn’t matter that Sarkozy doesn’t look like a French president, as a TV commentator once said. He represented a “rupture” with the doldrums of the Jacques Chirac era. He was full of energy, willing to break taboos and make grand promises.

The bigger rupture has turned out to be between him and the electorate. That happened quickly, too. By May 2008, he was down 32 points in the polls from ten months earlier. His approval ratings hit new lows—28 percent in a poll this month. And two-thirds don’t want him to stand for reelection. Last month, the Socialists swept the right in regional elections. The French don’t much like him. He responds: “I’m not there to be loved or not loved; I’m there to do.” Ahh, if only. Few politicians crave that love as transparently as Sarkozy. And it is personal. His job performance isn’t bad. France weathered the economic crisis better than any other big European economy. He implemented some reforms, stalled on others, and, lately, swerved from right to left, and back again. The biggest policy knock on him is incoherence. As the editor of the center-left Le Monde, Eric Fottorino, recently wrote: “Suddenly the Sarkozy method, the permanent agitation, has created a deadlock as strong as the immobility that he reproached, often very hard, his predecessor for.” But, far more than his ideas or policies, the French today find his antics tiresome.

L’affaire de la rumeur is merely the latest eruption of unhinged presidential neurosis in response to a perceived personal slight. There was, in February 2008, l’affaire du SMS. Sarkozy filed a criminal complaint against Le Nouvel Observateur for publishing an alleged text message he sent to his former wife, Cécilia, on the eve of his wedding to Carla. “If you come back, I cancel everything,” he was said to have written. The suit was withdrawn after the magazine apologized. Before then, Sarkozy pursued his rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, through the courts for allegedly smearing his name. This January, on Sarkozy’s birthday, the courts finally cleared de Villepin. The case helped launch a political comeback by turning the haughty aristocrat into a sympathetic figure, a victim of Sarkozy’s paranoia.

Among the president’s friends, the root causes of his troubles are debated. Canard found young ministers who blame his immediate entourage. “No one tells the President the truth,” one told the paper. Others date the rot back to 2007, when Cécilia, a political adviser, left him for good; within weeks, his poll numbers tumbled. In the days after, he was obviously lonely, distracted from his job. Bachelor life lasted but a couple months. “A man who can’t live without a woman,” one of his bodyguards once told me. Carla has brought in her own fashion-set crowd and pushed conventionally Euro-left views onto him. “He’s a shell of his former self,” says one friend. “I can’t imagine him hanging on in 2012.”

Potential presidential candidates from the French Socialists, arguably the most unreconstructed mainstream left-wing party in Western Europe, outpoll Sarkozy. And who knows if he’ll even get the chance to run. Smelling a loser, his own Union for a Popular Movement is having second thoughts. Maybe the old ways weren’t so bad, whisper the party’s parliamentarians. A former education minister and celebrity philosopher, Luc Ferry, recently urged Sarkozy to “embrace Gaullism,” the very philosophy the president moved to disavow. The most Gaullist of current politicians, de Villepin, plans to start a new party in June. The prototypical French functionary this month went to milk cows at a farm, which is akin to an American pol telegraphing presidential aspirations by dropping by a fair in Iowa. Other Sarkozy rivals potentially include his own prime minister, François Fillon, who has a much higher approval rating than the president.

The demise of Sarkozy would bring to an end a heady period in French politics. He opened France to the United States in a way no previous president would; last year, the French rejoined NATO’s military command, 43 years after Charles de Gaulle yanked them out. Though he has always possessed a statist streak, early in his term, Sarkozy did try to remove the stigma attached to capitalism, a legacy of an agrarian society that came relatively late to the industrial age. As the first leader born after World War II, Sarkozy was unsaddled with the complexes his predecessors took from the double humiliation of German occupation and American liberation. He is also part Jewish, part Hungarian—by name and appearance, a different sort of leader, and unattached to Gaullist insecurity disguised as national grandeur. But his tempestuous temperament, once a strength, has become his undoing. François Mitterrand, the only Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, once said of his successor Jacques Chirac that “he lacks inner peace and perhaps as well real character.” Sarkozy has just two years to prevent that from being his epitaph as well.

Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.