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Twilight of France’s Republican aristocracy

by Guy Sorman

PARIS — No tumbrels have appeared in Paris’ Place de la Concorde, but a revolution may be under way in France nonetheless. Recent weeks have seen the trial of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and the conviction of former Defense Minister Charles Pasqua.

Now even former President Jacques Chirac has learned that he is not immune from prosecution. Is France’s “Republican Monarchy,” to borrow a phrase from Jean-Francois Revel, about to be overthrown?

The French Revolution never ended the privileges of France’s ruling elites. True enough, some aristocratic heads rolled, but the nobility eventually returned to France. When the Republic replaced the monarchy for good, in 1875, ballots replaced birthright, but the new governing elite believed it possessed the same rights and perks as the former aristocrats.

But the concept of the “Republican monarchy,” which is mostly concerned with the mores of French presidents and their entourages, did not really take hold until the Fifth Republic. Once elected, the French president and his court gain access to financial privileges that are not always legal. Moreover, they live behind a shroud of secrecy: how they use official airplanes, the civil servants they employ for personal service, not to mention the mistresses, has always been more or less considered private territory.

The apex of the aristocratic Republic was reached under the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who ruled from 1981 to 1995. Unknown to the public, a government jet would ferry him to Egypt to spend weekends with his mistress and his illegitimate daughter. Only the media elite knew and they never told. Successor Chirac was only slightly more cautious.

All this has changed. Pasqua has been sentenced to three years in jail for illegal arms trading with Angola. Villepin, a former prime minister for Chirac, awaits judgment on charges of having organized a smear campaign against his rival for the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy. Chirac’s indictment is remarkable for the very modesty of his supposed crime: He is suspected of having asked city bureaucrats to work for his political party and run his electoral campaigns when he was mayor of Paris.

On a lighter note, Sarkozy’s Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand, the nephew of the former president, is being excoriated by the media for supporting Roman Polanski against efforts by the United States to extradite him to face punishment for the rape of a minor three decades ago. It turns out that this Mitterrand shared with Polanski a taste for teenagers (of the same sex in Mitterrand’s case).

So, something of a democratic revolution may be under way in France. The ancien regime’s supporters call it a “populist” revolution. But it is a revolution made in the courts, not the streets.

French judges have become more independent than they traditionally were. Inspired by Italy’s investigating magistrates who took aim at the mafia bosses, and those Spanish judges who act as social redeemers, some French judges are determined to democratize the French Republic and eradicate corruption.

The Internet is a seminal lever in this process. Today, President Mitterrand’s mistress and daughter could not benefit from the media’s complicity: No state secrets, and no aristocratic excess, can escape today’s bloggers.

Are the private lives of France’s elite also now to be exposed? This right to a private life, including extramarital affairs, has always been a sacred cow of French politics. The journalists who knew about Mitterrand’s second wife argued it was a private matter. And so it would have been had he not used state funds to provide his other family with lodgings, chauffeurs, and jets for Egyptian weekends.

Today, many French journalists still resist the temptation to expose the private lives of the political elite. But this is a lost battle: The bloggers do not share the journalists’ ethics. Sarkozy understands the new rules of the game. As soon as it was known that he had an intimate relationship with a former fashion model, he decided to marry her, avoiding any further embarrassment.

Aristocratic habits do not die easily, even in Sarkozy’s overexposed regime. Sarkozy’s son, Jean, has already been elected to a major local government office at the age of 22. Being as ambitious as the father, Jean Sarkozy recently tried to get appointed chairman of a powerful public company. Bloggers, followed by traditional journalists, went up in arms against such blatant nepotism. Young Sarkozy withdrew.

France, it seems, does not yet share the real democratic culture of, say, Scandinavia. French ministers have yet to be seen taking the bus or the subway to their offices. French ministries still occupy the former 18th-century palaces of the king and his nobility.

As long as the governing elite works in this splendor, one cannot expect that they will ever behave like common mortals. As Bossuet, Louis XIV’s confessor, declared to the Sun King: “You’ll die, but you are immortal.” French presidents and their elected nobility still bask in this aura. But, like French hauteur in international affairs, the end of an era may be at hand.

Guy Sorman, a French philosopher and economist, is the author of “Economics Does Not Lie.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)