The French – perhaps the most pessimistic nation – might refuse to believe it, but it turns out their elite can be cleansed after all. And there are lessons here for other countries.
Every elite ends up becoming selfish, and the French elite that I met after moving to Paris 20 years ago were shameless. Its members studied together, then gathered in a few arrondissements around the Seine, decamping in the summer in each other’s second homes. In a country with high taxes, the comrades of the caste rewarded themselves more with power and advantages than with money. If any issues arose, you could usually call a friendly judge. An era was summed up in the 2016 photo of François Fillon – Sarkozy’s prime minister – relaxing with his family on the lawn of his castle.
But the French elite learned to listen to the sound of the guillotine, and in 2017 several forces joined together to force a cleanup. There was the threat that far-right leader Marine Le Pen would become president. Emmanuel Macron won instead, but he had no temperamental loyalty to old friends. He brought in an elite younger generation containing unprecedented numbers of women and infected with foreign standards of transparency. Months later, the exposure of American predator Harvey Weinstein sparked the global #MeToo movement.
A Macronist law on “the moralization of politics” has prevented MPs from hiring relatives or spending without providing invoices. Fillon was convicted of having employed his wife in fictitious work. Inevitably, some on the right claim that he and Sarkozy are victims of legal persecution. Perhaps their condemnations simply exacerbated the French’s mistrust of the elites. Nonetheless, these are signs of reform: justice is no longer just for the little people.
Parliamentary life has also changed. No more six-hour champagne lunches with 22-year-old “research assistants”. A Parisian restaurateur complains that today’s politicians “have no money”. In late 2017, parliament elevators were hung with signs indicating the legal definition of harassment, prison terms and associated fines, and the addition of numbers victims can call. It has an effect.
The French #MeToo accelerated last winter, triggered by two memoirs, by Camille Kouchner and Vanessa Springora, containing allegations of incest and pedophilia. Kouchner’s stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, president of the elite restaurant club Le Siècle – in fact, president of the French establishment – has been banned from public life, accused of abusing his brother. The case brought down several other members of the elite, including the controversial philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, sacked by the LCI television channel after having meditated on the alleged abuse of a 14-year-old teenager: “Was there a consent ? . . . Was there some form of reciprocity? A different slice of the elite, the Catholic Church, faces similar hardships after a report estimates priests have sexually assaulted 216,000 French adults today since 1950.
The scandal surrounding France’s biggest literary prize may seem like a small beer in comparison, but it is just as culturally revealing. One author shortlisted for this year’s Prix Goncourt was a juror’s boyfriend; this juror also wrote a devastating review of a competing novel. Ten years ago, no one would have cared. Indeed, the secretary general of Goncourt, Philippe Claudel, first said, strangely, that “there is no ethical problem, as there would have been in the case of a spouse, a descendant or ancestor ”. Other advocates noted that the couple did not live together.
But times are changing. Last week, the Goncourt banned jurors from consecrating lovers and family. Most unusual, too, the recently unveiled shortlist did not contain any books from the country’s most connected publisher, Gallimard. All this follows the reform last year of the Césars for the biggest prize in French cinema: the board of directors resigned after 400 artists had criticized an “elitist and closed” academy which had nominated a film by the condemned pedophile director Roman Polanski for 12 prizes.
France did not suddenly become a model of transparent Nordic egalitarianism. But he is reforming himself, and he is not alone. When elite institutions are attacked from below, they find reasons to clean up.
Italy has reduced the number of its parliamentarians and reformed its courts so that wealthy defendants cannot chain cases until they lapse. In Great Britain, Oxbridge admits more students from public schools. Voters have stopped tolerating self-taught leaders, as evidenced by the resignation this week of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and the defeat of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis. Part of the fight against corruption is that we should be prepared to recognize when it is on the decline.
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