Erik Orsenna "didn't exist." Or at least that's what former French President François Mitterrand used to tell his speechwriter and cultural adviser, along with the rest of his Elysée Palace aides. Today, Orsenna, 60, is a world-renown novelist, the youngest immortel (or member of the Académie Française) and free to exist as he pleases. He sat on the Attali Commission, the 43-expert non-partisan group President Nicolas Sarkozy called on to propose reforms to liberate the nation's economic growth. And Orsenna is campaigning for Paris's Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë in the March municipal elections, a nationwide series of contests in which voters are expected to send struggling President Nicolas Sarkozy a message. Orsenna talked with Newsweek's Tracy McNicoll about the president and his controversial band of aides in Paris. Excerpts:
Critics accuse Sarkozy of personalizing his power. What' s changed in terms of where the power lies in France under this president?
French institutions are such that, when the president has a majority in parliament, he has very, very strong power because the parliament is nothing like the American [Congress], inquiry commissions are nothing like American ones. That makes for a concentration of power that is pretty rare in other democracies. And that's even more true when we have a president with the punch our current president has. So the power is in fact a power in the Elysée. And we don't have a parliament that can really play a role of counterbalance.
If that's a fixture of French institutions, what's changed with Sarkozy? Why these charges of personalization of power?
The difference isn't that there's more power at the Elysée than before. It's the way power is exercised. On every subject, even news items, the president is present. So it's not so much a personalization of power as the permanent and immediate character of decision-making today with Nicolas Sarkozy. On the big questions, in France, [when the president has a majority in parliament], it has always been the president who decides. Always. But [with other presidents], it wasn't always, all the time, on all subjects, and on all news items, always reacting, always being present. It's not so much personalization because power has always been embodied in the president in France. But now it's perpetual mediatization. That's the big difference. Sarkozy's permanently visible on deck.
Some say Sarkozy's penchant for taking charge on issues large and small comes at the expense of the prime minister and cabinet ministers. Is that all-out style harmful?
It can be harmful if you want to do everything at once, without a hierarchy of priorities, and without a timetable for reform. Even if you are decided to advance—and God knows I think things have to change in this country—but there must be hierarchies, there must be programming. [Especially at the beginning of Sarkozy's term,] we had the impression that everything was at the same time without real method and that all the decisions were concentrated in the hands of the president but without handing anything over to the ministers. And that's not possible. For example, take an area I know well. The culture minister, Christine Albanel, has a lot of trouble managing her ministry because the president's cultural adviser, Georges-Marc Benamou, has a tendency to consider himself a minister. I was cultural adviser of the president. The minister [then] was clearly Jack Lang and I never took myself for a minister. I simply played my role of presidential adviser, quietly and in the shadows.
Is the trouble that the ministries know better what's worked before, what hasn't, what might work? Sarkozy's short-lived initiative to teach the Holocaust to fifth-graders by pairing them up with specific child Holocaust victims to study was panned and considered unprepared.
Now that's the very example of a decision made by the president, I imagine without any advice from those around him, or only very close advisers, without prior general dialogue, because it's the very example of a bad decision. I imagine that if the president had asked the advice of a number of his ministers, including the prime minister, he would not have made this decision, which to me seems extremely bad. And you'll notice it was stopped almost as soon as it was launched, luckily. That's typical of the method. You have an idea, so you launch it. But a president can't have an idea and just throw it out there. He still has to know a bit about what it will mean. If an initiative isn't well-prepared, it can come back like a boomerang. Because as much as you have to have the courage to launch reforms—and I'm left-wing, but I believe it's necessary to deeply reform this country—launching reforms or ideas of that type without preparation doesn't work.
After you left the Elysée, you specialized in Mediterranean countries under former-Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. How did you view the controversy that pitted Sarkozy and adviser Henri Guaino's idea for a freestanding Mediterranean Union against the more EU-friendly version advocated by cabinet ministers and French members of the European Parliament. The Sarkozy/Guaino version irked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for months before Sarkozy dropped the idea of creating a standalone union last week.
If there isn't a Mediterranean Union, life in that region of the world will be impossible because there are some very young populations south of the Mediterranean, gigantic employment needs, and climate change will harshly affect the Mediterranean. So it is necessary to make this Mediterranean zone a zone of growth. So I share the objective 100 percent. However, France is part of the EU. So we can't launch a measure of this scale without having discussed it closely, notably with our German partners. You see, we have an example there of the method. We launch an idea that is an excellent idea, but without prior consultation.
The idea that was retained sounds a lot more like what State Secretary for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet and Merkel wanted.
Exactly. Obviously, we have to move forward, but if you just throw an idea out there, there is every chance, especially in diplomacy, that you'll be put in your place. Just as when you launch an initiative on Syria [sending secretary-general of the Elysée Claude Guéant to Damascus to feel out a rapprochement with Syria] without warning the foreign minister. The history of Syria, the history of the Holocaust, the history of the Mediterranean Union, are all pretty clear. And it's always the same thing. Why not try everything to find a solution for Lebanon—but then get everyone onside and don't launch an initiative without warning the foreign minister.
What's the danger of going ahead alone?
There has to be some coherence. Because if we say one thing to the Lebanese and you say something different to the Syrians, and the one speaking to the Lebanese doesn't know that there's another discussion in parallel that was launched with the Syrians, how is that going to work? Those in charge of French diplomacy should at least be informed and in agreement on this kind of big issue. And now we have the impression that the president's advisers—who in fact have no mandate, because an adviser doesn't exist. That's what President Mitterrand always told us and repeated. An adviser has no reality. He's there, but the important one is the minister. It's the minister that has a function.
Guaino defended himself recently, saying expression isn't reserved for "political notables."
But that doesn't mean anything. That's not at all the conception I might have and that people have. He's an adviser, great. The president, obviously, has the right to speak. But when you're adviser to the president, it's the president who speaks. Just as when I wrote the president's speeches, it was the president who spoke. I kept quiet. The impression is that Guaino wants to exist like a madman. He wants to exist at all costs.
And it creates confusion?
During the Jérôme Kerviel rogue trader scandal at the Société Générale, when Guaino said France "wouldn't stand by with its arms crossed" and let "any old predator" make a move for the vulnerable bank, it wasn't clear whether the president thought the same.
What does Guaino know about these questions? He has an opinion. Great. But my conception isn't that. It's that the president speaks and his team keeps quiet and helps the president. And the ministers work. The ministers exist officially, but to my mind, the advisers don't have to talk because, then, if one adviser says one thing and another adviser says another, then it's a big mess in the management of the state. Because the advisers don't have an administration to inform them. They have their own opinions. Good. Great. But a minister has an administration behind him to channel data upward. Basically, the change I see is an extraordinarily dynamic president—and that's good—who wants to take a position very quickly on everything. You can take a position on a lot of things, but not on everything, and not always very quickly and it must always be in consultation.
And, second, I think that there is far too large a role for the advisers. In my vision of things, that the president decides is perfect. That the ministers take their responsibilities is normal. But the advisers have to pull back and shut their mouths. Because otherwise, look at the situation. You have two foreign ministers, or maybe even three. Two prime ministers. Every post is multiplied by two or three, but that's not possible. An adviser to the American president isn't the Defense Secretary. There isn't a second Secretary of State.
Does it damage the president's credibility?
Of course. An adviser must serve. But an adviser that has ego has to change professions. And I have the impression that there are a lot of advisers at the Elysée that have a lot of ego. Well, may they change professions.