Life as Sarkozy's Secret Speechwriter

Marie De Gandt's tough job was made even harder by the fact that she was one of the few left-wingers in the Elysee Palace.
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Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech at the Architecture Museum in Paris on April 29, 2009. (Reuters)

Berlin, Nov. 9, 2011. In spite of the rain, thousands of Berliners and dignitaries from all over the world have gathered by the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. For Marie De Gandt, thirty-five, this is also her baptism by fire as French President Nicolas Sarkozy's new speechwriter. After hours of furious copy-editing, she has come up with a memorable phrase to encapsulate Europe's common destiny: "Wir sind Brüder, wir sind Berliner"--We are brothers, we are Berliners--an echo of Kennedy's 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner." Alas, Sarkozy massacres the delivery of his line: "Wir sind Bruhe!" he mumbles--"We are... broth."

She exposes Sarkozy's peculiar style of government -- one in which the president let secret political consultants from the far right run the show at the risk of compromising his own moral authority.

Marie De Gandt starts her polemical memoir Sous la Plume (Under The Pen, which came out in France in February) with this cruel anecdote. But her account of the inner workings of the Sarkozy administration goes well beyond a string of armless gaffes. As she takes readers behind the scenes of the Élysée Palace, she exposes Sarkozy's peculiar style of government -- one in which the president let secret political consultants from the far right run the show at the risk of compromising his own moral authority.

De Gandt was an unlikely candidate for the job. Raised by leftist activists in Ivry, a "red" (as in communist) suburb of Paris, she belongs squarely to the liberal Parisian intellectual elite that cried wolf when Sarkozy got into power. Her parents, a philosophy professor and a psychoanalyst, dedicated their free time to teaching pro-bono adult literacy courses to North African immigrants (they first thought of calling her Khadidja).

A professor of Comparative Literature, Marie continued to commute twice a week to the University of Bordeaux after landing her job at the Élysée Palace in 2009: on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she would deconstruct Romantic idealism for young literary majors. Every other day and night, she was on call to ventriloquize the "Bling-Bling" President who repeatedly scoffed at Madame de Lafayette's seventeenth-century psychological novel, "The Princess of Clèves," a classic of French literature.

Marie is married to radio host Guillaume Erner, a former sociologist who serves up a caustic column on the public radio channel France Inter. He ho spent the last five years "Sarko-bashing" every morning during his show, then helped draft the speeches for the celebration of François Hollande's victory on election night in May 2012. While Guillaume celebrated at the Bastille Plaza, Marie went to the other bank of the Seine to cheer up her former right-wing colleagues.

In many ways, Marie De Gandt wrote Under The Pen to sort out these contradictions and examine for herself if a liberal-minded academic could cross to the other side of the looking glass and work for la droite without losing her soul. What she could not have anticipated was that the right itself would shrivel to a parochial, nationalist shadow of itself a few years into the game.

In January, I sat with Marie for a soupe du jour (split peas, chervil) and a cup of tea (Sichuan) at the bourgeois-bohemian concept store "Merci" in Paris (green bamboo plates, 25 Euros each). With her long blond hair held back in a ponytail, her voluptuous red lipstick, her Louboutin shoes and H&M pink top, she looked like a dead ringer for Scarlett Johansson.

De Gandt got into the Élysée Palace thanks to Cicero and Demosthenes. To prepare for the prestigious École normale Supérieure's admission exam, she teamed up with a tall, skinny, ambitious student to grind away at pages and pages of Latin and Greek. His name was Laurent Wauquiez, and in 2007 he became, at 32, spokesman for Sarkozy's newly appointed government. He asked her to work for him. After a stint as a speechwriter for different ministers, Marie was then called in to serve "le PR" (for Président de la République), a nickname used by the Élysée staff that sounds suspiciously like le père--the father.

In sharp contrast with what we know of President Obama's close collaboration with speechwriter Jon Favreau, Marie hardly ever saw Nicolas Sarkozy in private. Alone in a tiny alcove under the roof of the Élysée Palace, she had to work from scratch, scrambling together obtuse technical notes handed out by staffers, words heard in the hallways and tidbits culled from the internet.

Former President Sarkozy was not a great orator. His most famous one-liner is, sadly, "Casse-toi pauv' con" --"Fuck off, dumbass." Worse, he loved to break free from his script. Marie soon discovered that she was the leader of the damage-control squad. After he butchered the name of the critic Roland Barthes in front of the assembled intelligentsia of Paris during an homage to the philosopher Julia Kristeva, she started spelling out phonetically every foreign acronym or proper name--"M.I.T. (aime-aïe-tee)", "Schumann (Chou-manne)," etc.

Her role was to force the President to read her words: to coax him, through literary ploys, into consenting for a few minutes to be an actor saying her text, rather than the free agent he was itching to be. The power struggle did not always work to her advantage, nor to his when he would launch into a tirade he did not know quite how to conclude. During a visit to a cancer treatment center in Marseilles, he once started off unscripted on the moral obligation to provide excellent quality care in palliative units ... "because dying, that's already hard."

Presented by

Cécile Alduy

Cécile Alduy is an associate professor of French Literature at Stanford University and a contributor to the New Yorker, the Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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