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The loneliness of the long distance politician

Sarko’s lack of fluency in English will probably stop him from joining the even better-paid world circuit of guest speakers, unlike Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.

Patrice de Beer
13 June 2012

Talking about politicians, the question which often comes to mind is, “How did they make it? ” This can elicit great stories, or good quotes as when former French president Sarkozy, then home minister, was asked if he ever thought of becoming president, and replied, “Yes – and not only when shaving!” Two years later, he was at home in the Elysée Palace, where he now finds himself replaced by Socialist François Hollande.

Yet, less is written about what happens with those who fail to be re-elected and find themselves returned to the status of a quasi “normal” person. Of course this only applies to elected presidents, not to monarchs or dictators who seldom leave office of their own will before their unavoidable encounter with the Grim Reaper. But they are in no position to write postmortem memoirs. 

It is about that loneliness of the defeated politician that I wish to write, invoking the title of a famous play by English writer Allan Sillitoe, with whom I had a brief but brutal encounter in the mid 90's, when I was Le Monde's correspondent in London, and his car crashed into mine somewhere in Kensington. 

Lonely are they - even more so – who are forced to retire early after a long distance career. It took place only once in France under the Fifth Republic: in 1981 with Valery Giscard d'Estaing (55 years old then), and now it happens again with Nicolas Sarkozy (57). General De Gaulle resigned when he was 79, François Mitterrand retired after two terms before dying the following year and Georges Pompidou died of illness during his first term.

Giscard, as the French are used to calling him, or ‘VGE’ as he preferred to be called, with reference to another famous young president, John F. Kennedy, never really recovered from his – unexpected for him – defeat, having considered himself a cut above the others. His departure speech was hilarious if not pathetic when, after having said “Good bye” to his ungrateful countrymen, he turned around and left through a back door while the studio light dimmed. He is said to have undergone therapy to recover from the shock. Since then, he still subsists on a quasi-presidential footing and is even said to have recently requested two extra servants, in addition to the two the State employs for him as a former president. Apart from this, he is life member of the Constitutional Council and has spearheaded a few important chores like managing the drafting of the 2003 European Constitution.

Maybe part of his therapy was to turn his ambition to writing after joining the Académie Française. Not necessarily on serious matters  - he became a novelist, writing syrupy novels. Sometimes with a hero inspired by himself, as for example, The Princess and the President (2009) where a look alike Lady Di is seduced by the French charm of a man Giscard would certainly have liked to have been. 

As for ‘Sarko’, probably as shocked as VGE after having been defeated, he now has plenty of time for himself, including watching television. Gone are the glories, challenges and trappings of power; enter loneliness and boredom. After a well deserved rest – politics can be very strenuous, perhaps even more so for its losers – paid for by the King of Morocco, he is now back in Paris with his third wife Clara Bruni-Sarkozy, hardly mentioned by the media who used to surround him. He will also join the Constitutional Council, like other former presidents, a well paid but not very busy perk. And he owns part of a firm of corporate lawyers. His lack of fluency in English will probably stop him from joining the even better-paid world circuit of guest speakers, unlike Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.

Having recently pushed forward retirement age till 62, Sarko has some time before he becomes a pensioner. He has kept silent – neither criticizing his successor nor supporting his now orphaned camp, just like the failed Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, did in 2002 after having unceremoniously been ousted in the first round, as defeat hit equally left and right  – while Mr Hollande has formed his new government and seems well on course to winning a majority in Parliament on June 17. This is two days after Mr Sarkozy will have become once again a ‘normal’ person, i.e. liable for legal investigations and, not impossibly, trials on cases he has been associated with, like that of the alleged illegal financing of his ex-mentor, Prime Minister Balladur in the failed presidential campaign in 1995 (sometimes referred to as ‘the Karachi scandal’  since it involved  kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan which climaxed in 2002 with the murder of 11 French engineers in Karachi); and his own 2007 campaign allegedly bankrolled by the richest woman in France, Ms Liliane Bettencourt, now under guardianship for senility. Could he be the second French president indicted after Jacques Chirac, now to be hit by a kind of Alzheimer disease? 

Yet the most difficult moment for an ex-leader is when his former courtiers, subordinates and allies publicly draw the line under him. Even if no one from his former party has disowned him, and even if his dwindling number of political faithfuls have created an informal group of ‘Nicolas Sarkozy's friends’, the UMP leadership is acting as if his time had gone for good. He is hardly ever  mentioned by them – starting with the three rivals to the leadership of the right – who have finally realised that it was his personality, and not his policies, which were roundly rejected by the voters. Time will tell if his foreign and business friends will show more gratitude to a man who said that, after having been president, his second greatest wish was to make a lot of money. Former German chancellor Gerhardt Schröder, for example, is now working for a Russian business group. 

In fact, it is just like normal retirement for normal people, and more precisely for all those who have not really made any plans for their retirement. Having worked like mad for decades, having been surrounded by supporters and helped by a cohort of assistants, secretaries, bodyguards, chauffeurs... who did all the menial tasks for them, they find themselves shockingly alone -  like the last prime minister, François Fillon, who, after having lost his portfolio in a Chirac government allegedly had to ask a colleague how to buy a train ticket to go home. They are now on their own, without an official office and planned working hours, and far from former colleagues for whom work and life go on. Alone in their plush loneliness or grief. Poor little rich politicians.

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