All the news - as long as it's good

By Catherine Field

PARIS - Few things are as revealing about France today as the relationship between the country's hyper-active new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the media.

The public gossips endlessly about Sarkozy's troubled marriage and his controversial wife. But with a few honourable exceptions, France's mainstream media are as genteel as a courtier in the presence of the Sun King. The Cecilia Problem either goes unmentioned or is treated in hushed tones, like an unfortunate disease.

The gentlemen of the press are similarly accommodating in exploring Sarkozy's fondness for friendship with the rich and powerful.

In less than three months, Sarkozy has gone on two luxury holidays paid for by wealthy chums, an event that in the intrusive "Anglo-Saxon" world would have come under fierce scrutiny.

If you switch on the television for France's 8pm news, be prepared for a string of items that start off with: "The President of the Republic today ... "

The cameras dutifully record the head of state as he chairs a meeting of his Government, issues a soundbite on some incident of the day, promises new laws, empathises with a victim of crime.

These daily pronouncements are unprecedented, for French Presidents are traditionally remote. The frenzy has earned the new incumbent the title of "Super-Sarko" and, some say, it is inspired by Tony Blair, a politician whom Sarkozy admires.

By dominating the limelight, Sarkozy looks active and keeps his critics off-balance, says historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet. "He's understood that the best form of defence is to be permanently on the offensive."

Daniel Schneidermann, a commentator with the left-wing daily Liberation, says Sarkozy is benefiting from the honeymoon typically accorded to newly-elected leaders but also from fawning and self-censorship by a press concentrated in a few, usually friendly hands.

Schneidermann pours vitriol on TF1, France's most popular TV channel, which is operated by tycoon Martin Bouygues, a friend of Sarkozy and godfather to his son. Schneidermann likens TF1 to the ORTF - the former state-run radio and television network that in the 1950s narcoleptically trotted out the daily agenda of the President and Prime Minister.

Yet Sarkozy also uses rougher stuff, especially when it comes to protecting his once-estranged wife, say journalists. In June 2006, Alain Genestar was sacked as editor of Paris-Match by publisher Arnaud Lagardere, also a close friend of Sarkozy. In 2005 during the Sarkozys' temporary separation, Genestar ran pictures of Cecilia in the company of Richard Attias, a Moroccan-born businessman described by the French and Swiss press as her lover at the time.

Another Lagardere publication, the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, ditched one of the best stories this year. Just after the May elections, its reporters, going through the electoral roll, discovered that Cecilia had not even bothered to vote in the second round of the presidential ballot.

According to the news website rue89.com, editor Jacques Esperandieu resisted demands to drop the scoop by three Sarkozy lieutenants but threw in the towel when called by Lagardere himself. The ostensible grounds for dropping the story were that it would have breached Cecilia's privacy.

In an ugly incident while on vacation in the United States this month, Sarkozy angrily grabbed the cameras of American photographers on stakeout by his holiday home. "I don't want you writing about Cecilia and her family life. That's part of my private life," Sarkozy later told French reporters.

On August 12, the day after Cecilia Sarkozy, citing a throat infection, skipped a family barbecue with President George W. Bush, photographers bumped into the French first lady while she was out shopping and apparently in the best of health.

Le Monde quoted Cecilia's minder as telling the snappers. "Don't force us to call your bosses in Paris to get you sent back home. If you say that you've seen her, that will stir up more rumours."

After his election, Sarkozy's apparent intention was to cast his spouse as a souped-up Jackie Kennedy, providing high fashion and a discreet diplomatic touch.

In July, he sent her to Libya to help secure the release of Bulgarian medics who had been jailed there for eight years.

But whatever controversial success that generated was wrecked by the US vacation, which made Cecilia seem to want to enjoy all the advantages of a President's wife while disdaining the duties that go with it.

And she looks untouchable, for Sarkozy has refused to let her testify to a parliamentary probe into the medics affair. Opposition lawmakers suspect the President secretly offered Libya weapons or nuclear technology to oil the release.

Sensing this Achilles heel, some sections of the media are now questioning what Cecilia's role is and why she should be beyond scrutiny. Plantu, the cartoonist in the left-of-centre daily Le Monde, lampoons Cecilia as a Marie-Antoinette, with a Prada shopping bag looped over an arm.

Disgruntled journalists use a time-honoured technique to exact revenge on Sarkozy, by dishing the dirt to a rival newspaper or the independent satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine. Last week, Paris-Match, under its post-Genestar management, was accused of doctoring a photo of a holidaying Sarkozy so that the President's "love handles" - rolls of abdominal fat - magically became sleeker.

HITTING THE HEADLINES

* Nicolas Sarkozy is a daily feature in the news on TF1, France's most popular TV channel. It is operated by tycoon Martin Bouygues, a friend of Sarkozy and godfather to his son.

* Last year Alain Genestar was sacked as editor of Paris-Match by publisher Arnaud Lagardere, also a close friend of Sarkozy, after running pictures of Cecilia Sarkozy with her lover.

* Lagardere stepped in and stopped another of his publications, Le Journal du Dimanche, from running a story on Cecilia Sarkozy not voting in the second round of this year's presidential elections.

* When Cecilia Sarkozy was spotted out shopping in the US this month after saying she was too sick to have a barbecue with George W. Bush and his family, she is reported to have told news photographers: "Don't force us to call your bosses in Paris to get you sent back home."

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