The job comes with six châteaux

WHETHER it’s Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal, the winner of Sunday’s voting in France will ascend into a bizarre, quasi-monarchial world reserved for the French head of state.

By Catherine Field

Published: Fri 4 May 2007, 9:35 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:23 AM

At the hub is the 370-room Elysée Palace, where a maximum of flunkydom combines with the minimum of contact with real life. When le président or la présidente de la République française passes through the Elysée’s triumphal archway and into its courtyard, Republican Guards in gleaming helmets and plumes will send their sabres to a shuddering salute.

Built for the count of Evreux in 1722, the grand palace was purchased for Louis XVIII in 1816 and in 1848 was formally designated as the residence of French presidents. Inside, she or he will be cosseted by butlers and liveried footmen, who pad silently through the salons of gilded columns, crystal chandeliers and Second Empire portraits. From the cellar and kitchens they will summon fine vintages and cuisine to rival Paris’s finest restaurants.

Of course, if the president fancies a change from the pomp and baroque grandeur of Elysée he or she can escape to the pomp and baroque grandeur of five other official residences, including the chateau de Rambouillet outside Paris and the Fort de Brégançon near Marseille, as well as a pavillion at Marly-le-Roi, near Versailles, that Louis XIV built to escape the suffocating etiquette of the court (the ironies of the past are lost on the present).

Yet could it be that the president’s aloof and lavish lifestyle is entirely appropriate? Indeed, the French head of state has powers that would be the envy of any autocrat.

Under the Fifth Republic tailored by Charles de Gaulle, the president determines defense and foreign policy; she or he can dissolve Parliament, appoint and fire prime ministers, toss out laws approved by the legislature and pardon any criminal. Added to this is palpable influence over the secret services and judiciary, which presidents of the past have notoriously used to settle scores, destroy rivals and help cronies in trouble. François Mitterrand didn’t even bother with the indirect approach: Less than a year after being voted into office he set up his own espionage unit, whose eavesdroppers, sitting in a specially equipped basement beneath Elysée’s carpeted halls, tapped the phones of suspected adversaries.

The media are complicit: Shortly before Georges Pompidou died of cancer in office, television parroted the Elysée line that the president was suffering from arthritis; Mitterrand’s prostate cancer, first detected in 1981, was a closely guarded secret until 1992.

As for the judicial system, there have been some encouraging signs of independence in recent years in tackling political graft. But the assault on abuse seems to stop at the entrance to the Elysée. Under the Fifth Republic, no president, in office or out, has ever been brought to book, despite the many scandals of power-broking and misuse of public funds.

A litmus test of this will be President Jacques Chirac himself. While in the Elysée, he has immunity from prosecution arising from investigations into alleged financial sleaze dating from his time as mayor of Paris. After waiting for years, will investigators move to probe his case when he moves out on May 16? The French do have one sure-fire constraint against imperial abuse: the street. Time and again —in 1789, 1848, 1871 and 1968, to name only the most historic years —mass protests have kicked out rulers, toppled governments, thwarted or encouraged reforms.

The lessons are etched into the political DNA of all presidential aspirants. They know that to a large degree the street is all they have to fear. As a result, the country lurches between periods of muddy consensus in which reform is conducted by stealth and episodes of convulsive, sometimes violent change.

So the next president would do France a great service by a touch of self-sacrifice. He or she should forego chunks of power, allow public scrutiny of the presidential office and strengthen the means to punish transgressions. The Elysée could do with a bit of sunlight.

Catherine Field is a journalist based in Paris

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