Alain Juppé, president-in-waiting?
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Alain Juppé is mayor of Bordeaux. He has an illustrious predecessor in that position: Michel de Montaigne, who reluctantly took up the post in 1581 and served until 1585. Those were troubled times: wars between Catholics and Protestants were raging in the region and, from June 1585, a plague in the city that took away some 14,000 souls in six months (Montaigne was criticized for not leaving his chateau to attend his successor’s investiture in the plague-ridden city).
Montaigne isn’t mentioned in the journalist Gaël Tchakaloff’s new book about the eighteen months she spent in Juppé’s entourage, Lapins et merveilles (265pp. Flammarion. €19). The reason for her assignment? Juppé, if the polls are to be believed, could become France’s next president this time next year. He is well ahead of his fierce rival Nicolas Sarkozy, and on the Left, no candidates have declared themselves yet. Juppé is seventy – which would make him a year older than Donald Trump and two years older than Hillary Clinton.
Bordeaux itself hardly appears in Tchakaloff’s narrative: there is a moment when a youth approaches Juppé in the street there and asks him if he is the mayor, to which he stiffly replies “yes” and walks away. Clearly, he doesn’t have the common touch. But being mayor of one of the country’s larger cities is undoubtedly a useful springboard for higher office. After all, Juppé’s mentor Jacques Chirac served as mayor of Paris before his two terms as president (1995–2007). Sarkozy was, at the age of twenty-eight, mayor of the town of Neuilly-sur-Seine, while François Hollande held the post in the even smaller town of Tulle in the Corrèze region.
Tchakaloff’s book is a partly successful attempt at a psychological portrait (there’s no discussion of Juppé’s political record – he served as prime minister during Chirac’s presidency – or his policies). “I’m well aware that you have to be a little screwy to spend eighteen months with Alain Juppé”, she writes early on. Indeed, she struggles to break through his thick carapace; to mix metaphors, she describes him to her editor as a “block of ice”, hence the need for eighteen months rather than, say, five or six: “Alain, closed, double-locked. Me, the opposite. Extrovert, expansive, excessive”. Politically, she’s on the left; he is centre-right.
Gaël Tchakaloff, Paris, April 4, 2016 - Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
He has something of the technocrat about him. In the 1980s, colleagues would refer to him as “Amstrad” in recognition of his data-processing abilities. But the politician who emerges from these pages is also likeable: he listens to the Goldberg Variations and reads Pléiade volumes. He takes twenty-five family members on holiday to Greece to celebrate his seventieth birthday (he has been married twice and has three children). His politics are centre-right but he appeals to many on the left. (To my untrained eye, he appears statesmanlike too.)
As she watches the two men debate, Tchakaloff draws a comparison between Juppé and Sarkozy, who with his “malleable neck, . . . protruding eyes, angry beak” reminds her of a little screech owl, hopping from one leg to the other. Juppé is more like a peregrine falcon. “Long-legged, he keeps his distance, draped in heavy wings, wheeling round from time to time to show off his height and administer his jabs.”
As Le Monde has pointed out, Juppé is unlikely to enter into any sort of pact with the Front National, or to try to reach out to its supporters, unlike Sarkozy. The leader of the Front Marine Le Pen recently wrote, with heavy irony, “Who would have thought at the time of massive strikes against Alain Juppé’s government in 1995 that, twenty-one years and several ministerial portfolios later, the same Juppé would try to embody renewal?” It sounds as though he has her rattled.
By the end of her time with the entourage, Tchakaloff appears reluctant to leave. She has grown fond of her subject, even if she’s not sure what to make of him. I sounded out informed opinion about Juppé’s chances next year – they were rated negligible: he’s too much of a technocrat and has too much baggage (not unlike Hillary Clinton, then!). But these are strange political times, so who knows?