Saturday, 20 October 2007

Letter from France: French first lady vanishes

Cherchez la femme!

Where is Cecilia? French newspapers have been investigating the whereabouts of French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy because she has vanished from TV screens and media events. The spouse of President Nicolas Sarkozy has apparently disappeared from public life -- or at least from her husband's public life -- days before the launch of a special commission to investigate the "Libyan deal" signed between France and Libya for the liberation of Bulgarian nurses, in which Cecilia Sarkozy supposedly played a major role.

Cecilia Sarkozy was not expected to testify in front of the committee, although she spoke with Libyan President Muammar Kadhafi before the nurses where released. The French presidential palace ruled out any kind of questioning, but the media are nevertheless investigating the reasons for her silence.

"Has the presidential couple broken up again after its previous separation in 2005?" wondered The Express magazine. These questions have never been asked before in France, where public opinion didn't grant much importance to its leaders' private lives, even though some of them, such as François Mitterrand, led double lives with two separate families.

However, the Sarkozy family is somewhat different. Journalists explain that since Nicolas Sarkozy invited the press, on his own initiative, into his private life, they felt they had the right to follow up on the matter. The media, however, opted for extreme caution after the head editor of a major magazine (Paris Match) was fired after publishing a photo of Cecilia Sarkozy with her former lover, Jewish publicist Richard Attias. Nicolas Sarkozy befriends journalists but reacts strongly when they reveal certain details his PR team didn't send out to them.

Surveys show that the French admire Sarkozy for his energy and genuine will to change things in their country, but that they also have a hard time keeping up with him.

The Libyan affair is one example. Sarkozy surprised Europe when he sent his wife to Libya to wrap up the case and take the credit for the liberation of the nurses the next day. But the French are furthermore intrigued by the content of the deal that was settled with Kadhafi and the possible concessions made by Paris. A mysterious nuclear energy and weapons deal was concluded, according to the Libyans, and the French wonder what its exact implications are.

"We won't force Cecilia Sarkozy to testify if she doesn't wish to do so, but she and her husband are accountable," declared the head of the committee, Pierre Moscovici, on the Jewish radio station.

"We won't send the police to the presidential palace to get Cecilia," said another Socialist official, Elisabeth Guigou.

The committee will have to settle with hearing Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's chief adviser, who joined Cecilia Sarkozy in her Libyan mission, or vice versa. The committee launched its inquiry last week.

The rules have changed since Nicolas Sarkozy's election five months ago, just as was promised in his campaign. Former rules are no longer valid. Sarkozy wants results.

He recruited Socialist members of Parliament for his own government and various projects, among them American admirer FM Bernard Kouchner and American-hater former FM Hubert Vedrine. Sarkozy pulled one of his most serious rivals, former Socialist presidential candidate Dominique Strauss Kahn, out of the French political scene by pushing him up to the head of the International Monetary Fund.

The French president found appropriate ways to deal with his various opponents, starting with the racist and anti-Semitic far right. Sarkozy attracted Jean-Marie Le Pen's traditional voters with his ideas on immigration and contributed to Le Pen's first setback in decades. Five months after losing massively to Sarkozy in the presidential election, Le Pen's Front National is ruined and has practically collapsed.

This year alone, following its two electoral defeats in the presidential and parliamentary polls, the Front National lost over $11 million, and the party is now considering selling its historical headquarters. At 79, Le Pen is about to retire from a divided party that lost its voters, private donors and public funding.

The extremist threat, however, hasn't completely vanished, because a new and younger Le Pen will apparently follow the old one. Marine Le Pen, currently vice president of the Front National, has announced she would run for the presidency of her father's party once he has retired.

Analysts are divided upon the future of the party under Marine Le Pen's leadership, if she does inherit it from her father, because she has adopted, in appearance, much softer manners than her father's. Would Marine Le Pen's Front National be more moderate or more dangerous than today's far-right party?

She acts in a more subtle way than her father, who is regularly denounced for his extremist reactions. The daughter makes every possible effort to appear moderate and open, jumping on every opportunity to work with minorities, Jews, blacks and Arabs, hiding her irritation. Marine Le Pen is the one who decided that a black woman would appear on her party's campaign posters. She chose a Jewish deputy, Jean-Richard Sulzer, for the Paris Regional Council and asked, unsuccessfully, to meet with Jewish organizations.

When I met with Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen in April, before the presidential election, she tried to joke around with me. But while smiling, she repeated that there was no anti-Semitism in France and therefore no reason to denounce such a phenomenon or fight against it.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism does exist and some victims have to struggle to be considered as such.

The press reported on the Ilan Halimi affair -- the young man who was abducted in 2006 by a gang that hoped to get a ransom and ended up killing him -- but another murder, that of 23-year-old Jewish man, Sebastien Selam, is still silenced.

Selam, also known as DJ Lam-C, was a successful DJ who worked in some of the most prestigious nightclubs in Paris. On the night of Nov. 19, 2003, he was savagely assassinated by his neighbor, Adel, who lived next door to him for years. After the murder, Adel bragged about killing a Jew and said he would go to heaven.

On Aug. 8, 2006, a court decided that the murderer was mentally unstable and therefore could not be held responsible for killing Selam. Moreover, Selam's mother, Juliette, and her lawyer were not informed of the ruling and therefore couldn't appeal the decision. After months of solitary struggle, Juliette Selam finally obtained from the court a reopening of the case, and she now hopes for a new trial.

In the meantime, her son's murderer wrote to her and demanded that she drop the charges.

Selam says that she's not afraid, declaring: "The worst has already happened."

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