John Lichfield: The all-too human side of Sarkozy


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A few years ago, Jacques Chirac invented the word "abracadabrantesque".

What he meant to say was: "No imaginary storyline for the soap opera of French politics could ever surpass the outlandish reality." In the midst of the abracadabrantesque "affaire DSK", I went to see La Conquête, the first French film to have the courage to deal with contemporary political events and characters. The movie tells the story of Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power in 2002-7 and his bust-up with his second wife, Cècilia.

Secrecy and rumour surrounded the film until it was shown for the first time in Cannes and Paris last week. The French press was largely disappointed with what it saw. "So what? We knew all that," the film critics chorused. "A movie should be something more than brilliant mimicry by excellent actors to retell an old story."

Maybe, but what a story. I lived through the reality, at one remove, but I found the "Sarko movie" funny (though not really played for laughs), gripping and, "abracadabrantesque". An uncouth, youngish politician (N Sarkozy) breaks from the pack and challenges his ageing boss and former mentor (J Chirac). Every possible dirty trick is tried by Chirac and his smarmy, foul-mouthed lieutenant (D de Villepin) to destroy Sarkozy, but he is too determined and too clever for them.

Then, the candidate's wife, who is also his chief political adviser, deserts him for another man. He emotionally blackmails her into returning in time for the presidential campaign, but she plunges into a deep sulk and refuses to go out and vote for her own husband.

Denis Podalydés, a classical French theatre actor, wonderfully imitates the voice, body language and terrible manners of Mr Sarkozy. At dinner with President Chirac, the fictional Sarko slumps over the table waving his fork in one hand and his mobile phone in the other. This is well-observed. The real Mr Sarkozy's boorish contempt for the surface elegance of the French elite is one of the reasons for his extreme unpopularity as President.

The film is, en bref, the abracadabrantesque story of a French Iago who succeeds in becoming Othello but loses Desdemona in the process. Mr Sarkozy emerges as cynical and profoundly annoying but also courageous and endearingly human.

La Conquête has broken the long French cinema taboo on representing current events. How endearingly human Dominique Strauss-Kahn might appear in a future "DSK, the movie", I have no idea.

When Garret was struggling to find the right front door

I was saddened by the death last week of the former Irish prime minister Dr Garret FitzGerald. As a freelance journalist for Irish and British newspapers in Brussels in the 1980s, I came to know Dr Fitzgerald well.

Garret – as he was known to everyone in Ireland – was briefly a journalist himself in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, the Financial Times, one of his former employers, is said to have found itself unable one night to contact its new Ireland correspondent. The FT foreign desk discovered the name FitzGerald in an old contacts book. Would their ex-stringer write them a swift, few hundred words? "That might be awkward," Garret replied. "I am now the Foreign Minister ... but, oh well, maybe I could do it under another name ..." I once asked Dr FitzGerald if this story was true. He smiled.

I have my own fond memories of Garret's kindness and informality (some called it scattiness). I was sitting with him, in 1983, with a large group of Irish correspondents in the poshest restaurant in Athens. The Maitre d' brought a vast, gilt-encrusted VIP book for the Irish Prime Minister to sign. After Garret had obliged, he passed the book to me. The Maitre d' made desperate clutching movements but it was too late. The book, full of the names of presidents and princes and pop stars, was passed around the table and scrawled over by all hands.

My last meeting with Garret was in 1996, when he was retired but still very active. I went to interview him in Dublin at the start of the Celtic Tiger economic boom. He had forgotten that I was coming. We did the interview in his ex-Taoiseach's state limousine driving into central Dublin. When we reached his destination, he could not recall the exact address he was looking for. The last time that I sawDr Garret FitzGerald, then about 70, he was zig-zagging on foot across a busy office street, examining the names beside each Georgian door in turn. The state limousine zig-zagged after him.

No Wimbledon-quality turf in Normandy this year

Gardening notes: The champagne grape harvest will be three weeks early this year after two months of solid sunshine in northern France. More than one third of the 96 departements (counties) in France are threatened with drought.

In my beloved Normandy, April and May are usually the most charming months of the year. Brown, black and white cows graze the sparkling grass under blossoming apple trees. This year the grass is looking scrappy and tinged with yellow. In our village in the Calvados hills, there have been two days of rain since mid-March. We are among the luckier departements. Pierre, my one-eyed farming neighbour, says his stunted wheat is trying to grow ears, under the impression that it is late June or early July.

Worst of all, my English lawn – known to my neighbours as "Wimbledon" – is looking desperately parched and grey. How can you irrigate when you live, most of the time, 160 miles away? The long-range weather forecast for northern France this summer is hot and dry. For "Wimbledon", it may soon be game, set and match.

John Lichfield's 'Our Man in Paris: A Foreign Correspondent, France and the French' is published by Signal at £12.99; to order it for £10.99 with free UK p&p, call The Independent Bookshop on 08430 600 030

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