The Cahuzac affair that rocked the French political scene last week has triggered all sorts of reflections in me around power: those who have it and those who don’t; what kind of shape and size it takes and what kind of demand it makes on those who assume it. For some reason I found myself remembering how it was when I first arrived in this country. I am not exactly certain about the connection between my memories and the financial scandal that is tearing apart the government and creating moral saints in the opposition so I leave the reader to weave together the tenuous threads of the ensuing lines and to tell me what it is that I really want to say.
I remember when I first arrived in France I fell in love with France in general and Paris in particular. I wasn’t an illegal immigrant but I didn’t have the right to work either. It was easy to cross the border but impossible to obtain the papers that would give me the right to feed, clothe and lodge myself. Marriage was out of the question because to get married I needed a resident’s visa. To get a resident’s visa I needed to return to New Zealand. To return to NZ I needed to buy a plane ticket. To buy a plane ticket I needed some money. To get some money I needed to work. To work I needed a work visa. To get a work visa I needed to get a resident’s visa…………………………………….
A well connected young man got me an interview with the then minister of foreign affairs and I blew it in broken French by getting the register all wrong. You just do not use the familiar “tu” with someone you’ve just met and certainly not with a cabinet minister.
This same young man, perhaps desperate to help me, then got me a job picking grapes on his parent’s property in Sologne. I worked alongside people from Brittany who took a bath once a week and gypsies who travelled France in a horse drawn caravan; people who told me France was an island because they had seen water all around it. It was hard work. It was delicate work. By the end of a week I hated grapes and my back was killing me but I had had an authentic experience of feudal France working at its best. My friend’s parents carried a deep sense of responsibility for the well being of their seasonal workers who returned faithfully year after year to “help” them yield the fruit of the land. It was a system well-rooted in the land and political connections giving it a confidence that made embracing extra terrestrials easy. It didn’t pay enough to get me back to New Zealand to apply for a resident’s visa however.
A couple of weeks after the grape experience a woman I was teaching English to invited me to go to New York with her to model fur coats and then sell them at the international fur fair being held next door to Central Park. I think she confused my ability to speak English with my capacity to sell and she, being rather petite, imagined that I, being rather tall, could transform into a model for a Paris fashion house in New York. Of course I said yes. I had one pair of decent shoes at the time and one suit but I waltzed around New York for a week in a black gamma mink coat. We didn’t sell anything but I did discover what a letter of credit meant. I also watched in astonishment as very sharp beautiful American women sold garments with Paris labels while the real thing on the stand just opposite remained an object of great suspicion. She lost a mega amount of money in one week and I would have felt guilty about it if my appalling degree of ignorance hadn’t prevented it. I still didn’t have enough to get back to New Zealand but I did have authentic experience of the French outside France: a daring raid on the world’s biggest city of business sharks, ill equipped linguistically but feeling confident in the relationship between student and teacher and insane enough to think it really might work.
All that was over 30 years ago and back then long legs and long hair could open a cabinet minister’s door. The number of extra terrestrials being deported was insignificant, internet was just entering our vocabulary and nobody gave a damn about whether or not you had a bank account in Switzerland. That was before September 11 and the subprime crisis in the States. It was before the Kerviel affair and the DSK affair in France. Sexual scandal isn’t really a political affair in France and it has to be of such outrageous proportions that not even the press can ignore it. The spectacular demise of Dominique Strauss-Khan drew attention to how power operates between the sexes and exposed the abuse of power at its most basic level. He was taken to the cleaners, ridiculed and ordered to commit political suicide but he was never treated as a Judas. Jerome Kerviel’s irresponsible gambling with his bank’s funds on the stock market made us all aware of the immorality and greed operating at the highest levels of power and he was treated as a criminal and made to pay for his audacity.
The avalanche of fury, distain and vitriol unleashed on Jerome Cahuzac after he confessed to operating a Swiss bank account last week was staggering. Admittedly he had used the account to launder money over a period of 20 years and being a socialist as well as the minister of finance didn’t go over terribly well with the French electorate. It was just too easy to perceive the gaping hole between what he was exhorting the French tax payer to do and what he was actually doing himself. And that was unforgiveable. He offered himself up as a Judas and he shall be crucified and excommunicated for his 600 000€. The French continue to debate whether Cahuzac’s behavior is illegal, immoral or both and are wondering whether there should be yet another piece of legislation invented to protect the needy from the greedy.
It may be just a question of scale. What passed for a local lark 30 years ago is today, a global affair. Would anyone still insist today that France is an island because he had seen water on all sides and what was it that I really wanted to say?