1 July 2013

Patrick Rotman’s ‘Le Pouvoir’

Having read reports in the UK about Patrick Rotman’s documentary Le Pouvoir (ie 'Power') after it was released in France in May, I was glad to get the opportunity to see it in a cinema recently. Rotman and his crew filmed François Hollande for the first eight months or so of the latter’s presidency which started in May 2012. Most of the time was spent in the Elysée palace but they also travelled with Hollande to the UN in New York and to Brussels. I thought it was a fascinating film even though my limited knowledge of French politics, particularly within Hollande's Parti Socialiste (PS), meant that many of the nuances probably escaped me. (Think of most French observers being oblivious to the undercurrents of a meeting between David Cameron and Boris Johnson.)

What struck me were things like the protocol and pomp and circumstance of the presidency, the slightly faded gilt grandeur of the Elysée, the cavalcade of Citroën C6’s whenever ministers came and went, the nearby officer with the briefcase, the obviously elite entourage, the presidential aircraft and, although I am used to French habits, the time spent hand-shaking and double-kissing (of women by men). And there is something slightly awkward about Hollande – he certainly doesn’t have the born to rule manner of certain old Etonians and all too often looks the odd man out (below at the G8 meeting in the UK last month). On the other hand, on one visit he seemed to have a surprisingly sure touch with ordinary young people.

Just after seeing Le Pouvoir, an article appeared in the July issue of Prospect magazine by Christine Ockrent. In Invisible republic (in print; on their website as What’s Wrong with France) The travails of François Hollande are a symptom of France’s deeper malaise, she makes some crisp comments about the president and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande’s problem is that although he has mastered the language — unlike Sarkozy, he went to the right schools — he simply doesn’t convey authority. During the presidential campaign in 2012 he tried hard to lose weight and look younger; now he dyes his hair too dark, the way older men do, and his waistline has expanded — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Georges Pompidou, who was rather stout, is now remembered with fondness for his short but successful presidency. In fact, Hollande behaves exactly the way his friends describe him to be in private: good natured with a great sense of humour, a sharp mind and a quick tongue — the kind of jolly, clever fellow one is always pleased to have dinner with when he comes to Paris. He’s like your favourite cousin from Corrèze, the province which has elected him as enthusiastically as it once did Jacques Chirac.
She goes on to criticise France’s “system of énarques et polytechniciens” in terms similar to Peter Gumbel’s which I posted about last month. Hollande’ s “right schools”, by the way, were political science at Sciences Po, economics at the HEC business school and ENA.  Ockrent, described by Prospect as “a journalist and a former Editor-in-Chief of L’Express” is the partner of Bernard Kouchner. When considering her opinions, it is worth knowing (as Prospect readers presumably don’t have to be told) that while latterly a minister under Sarkozy, Kouchner was previously involved with the highest levels of the PS.

Rotman (born 1949) has made documentaries about various French politicians including François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Lionel Jospin. A British equivalent might seem to be Michael Cockerell, but he provides a voice-over commentary and interviews his subjects (eg Boris Johnson) whereas in Le Pouvoir Rotman merely observes without expressing opinions himself. The film has been referred to as a fly-on-the-wall documentary (eg in The Times (£) on 15 May) but as the faces around the table at Hollande’s first ministerial meeting - so many of them, so many C6s - reveal, the cameras were clearly evident and not exactly welcome. Direct cinema or cinéma vérité would probably be a more accurate description. It seems unlikely that Rotman’s film will appeared subtitled for Anglophone audiences – if it did, I would want to see it again.

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