Book reviews


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 29 May 2009



Richardson, J. (2009), "Book reviews", Foresight, Vol. 11 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Book reviews

Article Type: Book reviews From: foresight, Volume 11, Issue 3

L’enfer de Matignon (The Hell that Is Matignon)Raphaëlle Bacqué,Albin Michel,Paris,2008,319 pp.,€20.00

Demain est un autre monde (Tomorrow is Another World)Francis Guttman,l’Harmattan,Paris,2008,317 pp.,€30.00

Olivier Besancenot, L’irrésistible ascension de l’enfant de la gauche extrême (The Irresistable Rise of A Son of the Extreme Left),Eric Hacquemand,Editions du Rocher,Paris,2008,202 pp.,€17.00

Making future leaders in France

Three recent books from Paris vividly balance foresight in leadership with the realities of hindsight deriving from the experience of undertaking the job.

You need not read French or know the politics of the country to appreciate the theme of Ms Bacqué’s book: the pressure-cooker life of the prime minister of a nation of 62 million hard-to-please voters. “Matignon” of the title is the Hôtel de Matignon, the official mansion on the Seine River’s left bank in Paris, where France’s first minister lives and works. Because of the French parliamentary system, the minister is not the object of popular vote. He or she is named by the country’s president, appointed from the winning party or parties (the plural applies when there isn’t an absolute majority of votes, and a coalition results from a combined majority). The trick is how the president picks the prime minister.

Author Bacqué, through carefully culled citations, tells how various premiers came to the fore. After François Mitterrand was elected (Socialist) president in 1981, he organized a number of luncheons for persons already selected as ministers. Laurent Fabius, who became France’s youngest P.M. at the age of 37, recalls how Mitterrand played a game “like the cat with the mice, resorting to the cruel exercise of asking each guest whom he would see as [the new] prime minister”. One day, during a luncheon between the two men only, the president confided that he would name a new first minister, that very afternoon, and that Fabius would be kept informed as to the new incumbent’s identity. The president failed, however, to get in touch again that day. Instead, the national radio announced during the afternoon, “Laurent Fabius is about to be named prime minister” (p. 26).

Once in place, a new prime minister must face facts and situations he had not dreamed of previously. Edouard Balladur, another prime minister during the politically fast-moving 1990s, assesses moving next to the throne room as follows: “One really needs to have the soul of a martyr to play such a role. In return for which, I’ve never heard of a case in which anyone at all refused” such a post. Edith Cresson, the only woman to be named to the post thus far, confirms that the job is “sacrificial, almost of Christ-like dimensions”.

Special schools, special students

Ever since Colbert, Louis XIV’s first minister who master-minded the empire’s finances, fleet and foreign commitments, senior servants of State have been a trademark in France of educated, high-performing administrators (they are almost invariably the products of the powerful, university-level grandes écoles). With the gradual industrialization of the country after Napoleon’s time, the public became accustomed to corporate executives who become ministers or ambassadors, diplomats who turn to running banks, or university presidents who take over the management of insurance firms or conspicuous NGOs. The current foreign minister, physician Bernard Kouchner, for instance, is a co-founder of the famed Médecins sans frontiers – doctors bringing aid to poor countries – as well as UN principal administrator in Kosovo.

Another of these polymaths is Francis Gutmann, a former ambassador who has also held executive posts in the building-materials industry, the Gaz de France super-utility, and the Institut français du pétrole; he has also run the French Red Cross. Gutmann views the role of the west in today’s world realistically: one of diminishing influence as the years pass, no longer offering the less-developed nations the role model that prevailed during much of the twentieth century. “The world today”, writes Gutmann, “has become too complex … for us to pretend that it subscribes to a generalized order … Each and all of us are confronted with choosing in a world basically transformed; no country can avoid making this choice [among several] reactions including those most violent” (pp. 263-4).

Another world for the twenty-first century is a goal of 35-year old Olivier Besancenot, the energetic postal worker who is the object of Eric Hacquemand’s admiring portrait of a young political activist. Besancenot is the son of a middle-school science teacher and a school psychologist. He heads, perhaps unbelievably after the demise barely twenty years ago of both the Soviet Union and its Communist Party, France’s League of Revolutionary Communists (LCR). Politically involved since the age of 14, Besancenot ran for the national presidency at age 27, then again at 33.

Today the Postman, as he is known familiarly to the media, is a dedicated anti-capitalist and wants to shake up radically France’s left-wing parties as well as the country itself. This presents a particular threat to France’s second-largest political party, the Socialists, who have suffered major discord and lost votes during the past five years under the leadership of François Hollande.

Author Hacquemand says that Besancenot would like to see his party, a formation born originally as a consequence of the great political disturbances of 1968, renamed the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). Since this book was published in Summer 2008, Besancenot has complained of being the target of telephone taps made by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government. The charge remains to be proved in the law courts.

Whatever the outcome, Besancenot plans to stay in the political limelight until the next presidential elections in 2012. France and the world will hear more of Olivier Besancenot during the years to come.

Jacques Richardson

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