Three hundred years ago France reached the height of authoritarian political power with Louis XIV famously saying, "L'Etat c'est moi:" what a US president would, much later, adapt as "the buck stops here." Actually the Sun King refined his political theory under one tagline, "un seul roi, une seule loi, une seule foi": One king (guess who), one law (his), one faith (who else's?).
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you could be excused if you wondered that so little has changed in the intervening centuries. The republican monarch presiding over the French acts as if neither time nor the little episode known as the French Revolution have occurred. Let's just mention three recent events.
First, after their disgraceful behavior at soccer's World Cup tournament in South Africa, the French team returned home last week to widely felt opprobrium. The President immediately summoned their captain to the Elysée Palace for a dressing down, and you could tell that, had we lived in earlier time, the firing squad would have been lined up. What made this even more shocking was that on that same day, France went through a crippling strike protesting the public pension reforms the Sarkozy administration had launched. With millions of protesters on the streets (I could hear the deafening noise from my apartment by the Bastille) doesn't the President, people wondered, have other more pressing matters to attend to than to admonish the national soccer team for a dreadful performance?
Then, his only reaction was that those reforms were made even more necessary by the economic crisis and that people should accept a reduction in their incomes and purchasing power until the budget deficit was brought under control. Nothing wrong with that idea, except that it never crossed Sarko's mind that he could apply that maxim to himself: after all did he not increase his salary by 172% when he became president, one of the first decisions of his presidency? Of course not: as Louis XIV would have said, there are two sets of rules: one for me (summarized in that old principle that "the King can do no wrong") and another one for all other mortals.
Finally, when France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde (our response to The New York Times), announced it was up for sale and bids started coming in, Sarkozy thought nothing of summoning the publisher to tell him that he was dead against a triumvirate made up of Bergé (Yves St-Laurent's partner) and two other businessmen buying the paper. Some of the President's advisers must have reminded him that Le Monde was an independent paper operating in a country with nominal press freedom. He probably brushed their concerns away, convinced of his (God-given?) right to run the country like his personal possession.
Have we degenerated to such an extent that we have become a banana republic (without the bananas) run by the latest avatar of Idi Amin Dada or Saddam Hussein? I was delighted to hear yesterday that Le Monde’s staff (who are entitled to choose the new owner) went straight for... exactly whom the President hated. There is hope after all. All it takes is a few courageous men to stand up to the bully-in-chief. A heartening message a few days before Bastille Day, I reflect looking at the column symbolizing the end of dictatorship on Place de la Bastille. We have doubtless come a long way - but there is still a long way to go.