How Mitterand's Sex Scandal Hurt President Sarkozy

Getting a Mitterrand to join his government looked like another political master class from French President Nicolas Sarkozy back in June. Frédéric Mitterrand, 62, is the nephew of former Socialist president François Mitterrand—a leader whom, ironically, Socialists still today affectionately call tonton, or uncle, 13 years after his death. So it seemed like a coup when the conservative president awarded him France's cultural ministry. But in two wild weeks this fall—with Roman Polanski's sudden arrest and a sex-tourism scandal in his own government—Sarkozy's big score became a liability, and a lesson for a president prone to tactical overreaching.

The nephew Frédéric was never especially Socialist himself, but as an author, former movie-house owner, actor, and popular television host, the soft-spoken openly gay aesthete had the cultural chops for the job. And with the surprise nominee's lefty pedigree, Mitterrand fit right into Sarkozy's mostly masterful strategy of ouverture, by which he effectively destabilizes his opposition by cherry-picking their stars or their ideas. (He sent his biggest threat to run the IMF in Washington, made a former Socialist health minister his foreign minister, and appointed a popular former Socialist culture minister as his special envoy to Cuba and North Korea.. The ruse prevents Sarkozy's opponents from building up any traction against him. That it peeves Sarkozy's majority, depriving longtime loyalists of patronage posts, seems a small price to pay for effective puppet mastery of French politics.

And it works—extremely well. By grabbing personnel and policy from other parties, from the left to the far right, Sarkozy managed to thoroughly disarm his biggest rivals, the Socialist Party and the extreme-right National Front, making them inaudible and ineffectual at the ballot box for two and a half years—half a presidential term in France. But for all that ouverture has accomplished, Mitterrand reminded the French this week that it is as risky as it is cunning.

When the Franco-Polish film director Roman Polanski was arrested last week, 31 years after fleeing child-sex charges in California, Mitterrand was the first to react, controversially, with surprisingly clement language for Polanski and harsh words for U.S. authorities. Mitterrand called Polanski's arrest "absolutely appalling," the criminal case "an ancient story that doesn't really make any sense," and said, "Just as there is a generous America that we love, there is a certain America that frightens us, and that America has just shown us its face." While some film stars in France and abroad were quick to agree, in the days that followed it became clear that members of Sarkozy's ruling party weren't happy with Mitterrand's assessment. (After all, Polanski admitted to "unlawful sex" with a 13-year-old girl.) Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front and daughter of rabble-rouser Jean-Marie, spoke for a large part of the public in asking, "Does the fact of belonging to the superprotected showbiz caste exonerate its members from respecting laws and authorize it to escape from prosecution for 30 years?"

The National Front rarely scores political points these days, particularly since Sarkozy—with his tough stances on security and immigration going back to his first stint as interior minister in 2002—co-opted parts of its electorate. But Marine Le Pen followed up her rhetorical question by digging up excerpts of Mitterrand's 2005 autobiographical novel La Mauvaise Vie (which translates as The Bad Life). The book's narrator, which Mitterrand has previously implied is very much himself, speaks explicitly about his adventures with "boys" in Thai brothels, implying at best sex tourism and at worst pederasty. She called for his resignation. Then, from the left, so did the spokesman of the Socialist Party.

As the story heated up, Mitterrand was called to Sarkozy's Élysée Palace early yesterday morning, in crisis mode, to figure out how best to defuse the scandal. Last night, in an interview on the nightly news, Mitterrand responded to the accusations. In his famously flowery language, he admitted to sex tourism but repudiated it, while denying buying sex from minors. "I absolutely condemn sexual tourism, which is a disgrace; I absolutely condemn pedophilia, in which I have never participated." Asked how he knew the prostitutes he paid weren't minors—because he refers to "boys," "kids," and "students" in the book—he exclaimed that "a 40-year-old boxer doesn't look like a minor, frankly," and claimed to have had sex only with men his age or five years younger. Instead of addressing discrepancies between his statements and his book, he accused his detractors of confusing homosexuality with pedophilia. Probably not the sort of television appearance Sarkozy had in mind when he hired him, although back in July the president said he had read Mitterrand's book and found it full of "courage and talent." Sarkozy, uncharacteristically, hasn't said anything publicly about this Mitterrand controversy—or the Polanski controversy, for that matter.

Now, just months from regional elections in March 2010, Sarkozy's big summer ouverture has inadvertently allowed previously hopeless opposition parties to gain elusive traction and stake out new political terrain at Sarkozy's expense. Le Pen and the National Front have found the political space to appeal to right-wing voters on more mainstream values issues—instead of the usual, more extreme anti-immigrant tough talk. And the Socialist Party, although divided on this as they are on everything, managed some rare coherence: some of its younger heavyweights took clear stands—breaking with the facile moral ambiguity that turns off centrist voters—and weren't cowed by the Mitterrand name. In another encouraging sign, they didn't shy away from confrontation just because the National Front got there first.

Mitterrand's job is probably safe. Letting him go would be too big a personal blow to Sarkozy. But after years of the ouverture strategy, so far successful in neutralizing Sarkozy's flanks, Mitterrand's missteps have just given long-lost opponents a glimmer of hope.