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

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions