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."

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."

But her book is not just for laughs: Her account of the Sarkozy administration's drift to the far right on domestic issues after 2009 is nothing short of chilling. Not as much because of the populist, thinly veiled xenophobic rhetoric she is given to copy-edit. Sarkozy's speeches targeting gypsies, Roma and immigrants, or his 2007 rash assertion in Dakar, Senegal, that "The African man has not fully entered into history," are old news. Rather, what is frightening is the erratic, muddled cacophony of voices aspiring to become the words of the president.

Marie was hired to be the "second pen," the extra hand that would give an overall architecture to the "bricks," or technical briefs, she was handed by staffers. But she had to compete with other speechwriters and a host of secret counsels with radically different political views from each other.

"The crazy thing is that no one knew exactly what the Big Vision was at any given moment," she confides. "It was incredibly difficult to know where the decision [to announce this or that policy] was coming from: from the president himself? His Special Counsel, Henri Gaino," a republican humanist who was his primary speechwriter? "Or his Chief of Staff, Claude Guéant," a hard-liner known for his strong positions against Islam? Lost in the labyrinthine routes of the Élysée Palace's chain of command, Marie found herself like Alice falling into the rabbit hole: "I was opening one door after another, trying to get to the source, the core, but poof! It would vanish into a black hole."

In the evenings, a procession of lobbyists, friends, businessmen, thinkers, and decision makers would visit the presidential apartments to play their hand in the influence game." Power was nowhere and everywhere," she adds, remembering how she was left to figure out for each speech what the president wanted to her to write.

Marie's schizophrenia--a leftist writing for a right-wing president--is easy to understand: she loved a job where words, finally, had real punch and efficacy. After years languishing in the Byzantine limbo of academic hair-splitting and abstract theorization, she got hooked with the adrenaline of writing on assignment on a two-hour deadline. As her fingers ran over the worn out keys of her 2005 MacBook, she knew she was making history. "What is power?" she asks, her rhetorical question suspended in mid air as she bites into her crostini. "Power is the place where the world can be transformed into something else. The place where writing truly becomes action."

She also joined the government at a time of political ouverture. In 2007, Sarkozy appointed the first Black Secretary of State (Rama Yade) and the first woman born to North African immigrants to become Minister of Justice (Rachida Dati) while four cabinet positions were doled out to members of the Socialist Party--a sign of open-mindedness and bipartisanship, if, like Marie, one is inclined to a charitable interpretation. In retrospect, it is hard not to see Sarkozy's triangulation strategy for what it was: a self-serving tactics that convinced people just like Marie to cast their ballot on his name.

De Gandt is right to think that a president's words have lasting power. When Obama spoke of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in his 2013 State of the Union Address, he planted the seed for change. Conversely, when Sarkozy--advised by his secret counselor Patrick Buisson, a former far-right National Front supporter, to court the nationalist, anti-immigration current of the electorate--spoke in his July 2010 allocution in Grenoble of "French youth of immigrant descent" and declared them primarily responsible for urban violence, he gave the highest possible legitimacy to a spurious theory usually promoted by the far right. When he announced policies that could strip the same minorities of their French citizenship if they committed crimes against law enforcement forces, he validated the concept of discriminating among citizens according to their roots and race.

Marie was baffled by that speech in Grenoble--she dutifully emailed the president's staff to offer alternative narratives--and she consistently refused to engage into the nationalist rhetoric that the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and National Identity rehashed. But she did not resign.

Surprisingly for someone who embraces her own inner contradictions, De Gandt defers the question of the responsibility of the president in the right-wing turn of his domestic agenda. While she is never complacent with herself, she desperately needs to believe in her boss' sincerity. An incurable optimist who refuses to drag politics into further disgrace, she needs to believe that Sarkozy could not act but as the president. In the fog of the Élysée Palace's maze, she failed to notice that he had long ago returned to being a presidential candidate.

Marie muses about where the right and the left stand now that Sarkozy has blurred the lines. I push her gently on his responsibility: "Maybe I lied to myself, I wanted to believe in it, because I knew the staff and they were all decent people, good people," she confesses. "But it's not the staff who decides on the line of action of the presidency, even less so during an electoral campaign. Yet, someone has to go in and try to champion what is good, and crush what should be left to rot. There was an inner battle within the government between two visions of France: a France withdrawn onto its old traditional self and another yearning to be a modern and opened onto the world. You have to stay to save that line."