John Lichfield: Trial by film-maker is Sarkozy's next ordeal

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And now "Sarko, the movie". Or even two movies.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is sometimes accused in France of being "uncultured" (ie vulgar), has become a great and knowledgeable fan of classic European cinema. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, in an attempt to boost her husband's cultural education, launched him a couple of years ago on a crash course in films from the 1950s and 1960s. At a recent lunch for authors and other members of the French cultural great and good, the President did not want to talk about politics, or the economy, or his suddenly acquired taste for military adventures. He wanted to talk about the Danish film-maker Carl Theodor Dreyer and his "sublime" 1955 film Ordet [The Word]. Mr Sarkozy told his guests that he and Carla watched at least 150 old films a year.

As new-minted cinephile, Mr Sarkozy will presumably have welcomed the news that a ground-breaking movie about his rise to power will be shown "out of competition" at the Cannes Film Festival next month. La Conquête [The Conquest] directed by Xavier Durringer, will make cinematic history because it is, believe it or not, the first French film ever to address contemporary French politics.

Denis Podalydès plays Mr Sarkozy and Florence Pernel plays his second wife, Cecilia, in a movie described as "the story of a man who gains power and loses his wife". The producers had enormous difficulty in raising the money to make the film. The Cannes festival insists, however, that it came under no pressure from the Élysée Palace to keep La Conquête off this year's programme.

Another film inspired, in a roundabout way, by Mr Sarkozy appeared on French screens this month. It is the documentary story of how a group of disaffected, multiracial teenagers from the tough northern districts of Marseille learned about life and love by reading a 17th-century novel set in the 16th century. It is entitled Nous, Les Princesses de Clèves, which might be translated "We are all the Princesses of Clèves".

What has that got to do with Nicolas Sarkozy? During his successful 2007 election campaign – the campaign described in La Conquête – Mr Sarkozy mocked the fact that the original novel, La Princesse de Clèves, had recently been used as a set-text in a civil service examination. What on earth, he said, did the work of Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, Comtesse de La Fayette (1634-1693) have to do with contemporary France? This was, he said, an example of the kind of up-ourselves, cultural elitism which prevented real talent from rising to the top and prevented France from succeeding in the modern world.

His tirade against a book regarded by the French literati as the world's "first real novel" was seized upon by Mr Sarkozy's enemies as proof of his shallowness and vulgarité. Sales of the book soared. There were demonstrations in which leftist activists solemnly read out extracts from La Princesse de Clèves.

The documentary movie set in northern Marseille is, therefore, partly an attack on Mr Sarkozy. Far from being a pointless book, used as a barrier to preserve the privileges of a social and educational elite, the movie suggests that Madame La Fayette's work contains a universal message about enduring love. By studying it, the black, brown and white teenagers learn about their own emotions. Far from becoming more alienated, they learn how to feel more adult and more French.

Of the two films, this is the one that Mr Sarkozy – facing a difficult re-election 12 months from now – might find the more embarrassing. His attack on La Princesse de Clèves was an attempt to position himself as a different kind of plain-talking, can-do politician untainted by the finishing schools of the elite. Four years on, his disastrous poll ratings can be explained partly by the fact that many voters – including many of the older and conservative voters who elected him – think that he is uncultured and unpresidential and, yes, vulgar. Hence the lunch parties for authors in which Mr Sarkozy boasts of his love for Danish film directors.

Ministers expose the great cultural divide

Two of the President's most devoted political followers are having problems adjusting to the new, more cultured face of Sarkozyism. First, the junior trade minister, Frédéric Lefebvre, a hirsute political attack dog, tried to show off on television how many books he had read. He said that his favourite tome was "Zadig et Voltaire", which is a designer clothes label. He said later that he was thinking of Zadig by Voltaire.

Then Nadine Morano, the training minister, who likes to regard herself as the voice of middle-class common sense, was flummoxed by a question about the Renault fake-spying saga. "Renault, was it everyone's fault but [the Renault boss] Carlos Ghosn," she was asked during a quick-fire Q&A session on Canal Plus television. "I like Renaud [the veteran French pop singer] usually but I've never heard that one so I can't say," she replied.

Has François Fillon quite got the schist of things?

Such a mistake would never be made by the clever, careful Prime Minister, François Fillon, who comes from just the kind of social and educational elite that Mr Sarkozy once tried to distance himself from (that is one of the many reasons that they don't get on).

There was therefore amused consternation in the national assembly last week when Mr Fillon rose to answer questions about the environmental problems caused by prospecting for natural gas in deposits of schist, a type of metamorphic rock. Mr Fillon, whose wife is Welsh but speaks little English, clearly said "shit de gaz" before correcting himself. The French news agency, Agence-France-Presse, helpfully explained to its readers that "shit" was a familiar term usually employed to describe cannabis resin.

j.lichfield@independent.co.uk

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