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This was to be a short article for expats on French and Italian politics, but as I did some research I found it much more interesting to look at the heads of state of the two countries. But I'll first do what I set out to do, albeit in a more truncated form than originally intended.


French politics

France has existed for a very long time, having broadly grown out of what in Roman times was originally a set of tribes lumped together as Gaul. Its modern history dates to the Revolution in 1789 which gave rise to the left-right political distinction that still characterises modern French society. The Fifth Republic was founded in 1955 and the leadership of the country has periodically oscillated from right to left ever since. The French right-wing are careful to avoid the use of the term as it still carries associations with the monarchy; instead they like to call themselves nationalists and modernisers. On the left, the strong association with the Communist Party is now much reduced and the parties of the left are more associated with social and economic reform.

French politics tend to swing from side to side at each election, sometimes quite violently. Bipartisanship does not exist - in fact there isn't even a word for it. So the opposition always votes against any Government proposal, even if it's in favour of it. The French are not great lovers of change - though they're quite keen on revolution - and they prefer ideas to reality, so the classical joke "The facts and the theory do not match, let's change the facts" is actually pretty true in France. There's plenty more of this at The Franco-American Website.


Italian politics

Enough of France; how about Italy? Although it has its roots in ancient Roman society, the country as it now exists was united as recently as 1861 and only from that point onwards did even a common language apply to the entire peninsular. Outside the cities the old dialects still play a large part in everyday life. Italy has been a democratic republic since 1946 when the monarchy was abolished by popular referendum. Italian politics have long been associated with a host of fractious small parties but more recently this has given way to the familar two-party left and right as found in other countries. The old cliché that Italy had 50 governments in its first 50 years hides the fact that these were all centrist Christian Democrat, only changing in the relative proportions of the smaller parties that commprised them.

In a recent poll on how Italians perceive themselves, at the top of the list came "the very concept of family", followed closely by "the art of getting by on your own", then at a greater distance by "the artistic heritage". "Democracy compliance" and "civic minded behaviour" came way down at the bottom. And to counter the aphorism above for the French, it's said that "Italians prefer inauguration to maintenance".



And so on to Sarkosconi, a word I thought I'd invented until I typed it into Google. For it seems that the presidents of both Republics are loved by some and loathed by many, though for different reasons. For some they are both saviours of their countries; great reformers willing to stand up to vested interests and put right the evils that have been dragging down their economies. For many more they are treacherous opportunists, only interested in power for what it brings to them personally. In both cases the only thing that unites many of their opponents is having someone even worse to hate, and Sarkozy/Berlusconi both appear to provide plenty of ammunition.

So where are the similarities? Well to start with, Sarkozy is accused of being a "Bushist" and sometimes - even worse - of "Petainism". Not words to be taken lightly in modern France. And for Italy, the infamous "three Bs" (Bush, Blair and Berlusconi) dreamt up the war in Iraq for reasons probably entirely unconnected with making the world a safer place.

Virtually everyone dislikes Berlusconi, but who are the people who hate Sarkosconi the most? Well of course, opposition politicians, but that's only to be expected. Add to this, artists and sportsmen. But why? He may be an authoritarian control freak but there's little evidence he tries to silence his opponents. Over the border, Berlusconi is well known for owning half of Italian TV and radio and controlling most of the rest, with the inevitable loss of impartiality and balance that follows. Unlike France, where freedom of speech is highly cherished, Italy has little to no tradition of political satire, and those who try to introduce it are dealt with by blacklisting and ruinous law-suits.

Both leaders are slick demagogues, given to inspirational speeches and extravagant promises most fear stand little chance of ever being realised. Both are figures of ridicule and each - in his own way - is obsessed by their age and physical shortcomings. Sarkozy looks silly, not because he's ageing badly but because he goes to such bizarre lengths to cover it up. He looks silly not because he's short but because he stands on a box. Berlusconi, well, just looks silly and his antics just confirm the impression. As a Guardian columnist put it, Sarkozy is like Richard Briers in Ever Decreasing Circles while Berlusconi is the over-the-top suave smoothie next door. There's a YouTube video here of Sarkozy apparently drunk at a press conference, and here's one of Berlusconi doing his bit to improve international relations.


Berlusconi is notoriously gaffe-prone. One of his best was to whisper to Sarkozy during a television press conference that "I gave you your wife", the Italian-born Carla Bruni. The words were decoded by a lip reader employed by Canal+, for which the French media crowned Berlusconi "the Oscar-winner of vulgarity". Shortly before, Berlusconi had described President-elect Obama as "sun-tanned". Sarkozy is relatively immune from gaffes, other than accusing Gordon Brown of meddling with interest rates, wheras we know it's the Bank of England that does it, independently of the Government. (Honest, guv.)


None of this, however, really explains why Sarkozy is so hated by so many sections of French society. An intense and obsessive dislike of the president - anti-sarkozysme - is fast becoming the defining feature of French opposition politics. He is accused of running an "egocracy". His 23-year old son was recently awarded a top government job, and government decisions are made as much by advisers as by cabinet members. This is eerily reminiscent of both the Thatcher and Blair years in Britain, and indeed Sarkozy is compared with both of these, though neither managed to anger their opponents quite as much as he appears to. The truth is that the French are drawn to strong leaders but are most unwilling to do their bidding or that of anyone else in authority.

By way of comparison, Berlusconi is viewed by most intelligent Italians as an embarassment. Event though there's not much that embarasses the Italians he manages to achieve just that and to bring the whole state into disrepute with his antics. But instead of hate, Italians exhibit a kind of resigned fatalism, as if it's only what you'd expect from politicians in their country.

If forced to make a comparison I'd say that both leaders fail to carry a large part of ther own electorate along with them. But the same point could be made about British politics, now widely ignored by so many younger voters. The French and the Italians display their national characteristics, the former electing an authoritarian figure just so they can defy him, while the latter put up a cad and a rogue then pretend it's not their fault.

It must be true - we do get the politicians we deserve.