Ces français du service de l’étranger, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
Author: Clément Fayol Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Publisher: Plon, W.W. Norton & Co,, France, USA
When I was studying mass communication in Paris in the 1980s, my philosophy teacher told me that he would rather hire someone with a thick stack of business cards than someone with a thick stack of university diplomas. He himself had nine different master’s degrees and taught as a part-time teacher at various more or less good private schools in the Paris region. My old teacher would surely have liked Clément Fayol’s new book, Ces français du service de l’étranger («French people in foreign service”). Although Fayol says that at the minister and agency chief level, it is important that you have attended the right schools (ENA, HEC Paris, Sciences Po Paris…), it is your network that shows who you are and gives you jobs and perks. Fayol shows that the French political elite often take on lobbying jobs for the private sector after losing an election or retiring early. As employees of PR and communication agencies, ex-politicians try to influence their former colleagues, people in their own network.
In Norway, Kristian Rindheim has shown that as many as one in four members of parliament move to the communications industry after their political careers are over. Here at home, we have discussed whether this is a moral problem or a democratic one, or both. The discussion is not over even though the Parliament in 2015 passed the quarantine law – politicians and top bureaucrats must wait six months before they can work for private companies in the field they themselves managed as public employees.
Fayol focuses on those who, after a public career, begin to work for foreign interests in France. When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went on a charm offensive in Europe in 2018, a tour that was facilitated in France by the same PR agency that handled La République en Marche and Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign in 2017, a number of newspapers were arranged, paid-for reporting trips to the country. Le Monde accepted, French Mediapart, where Fayol works, declined. Fayol did not want to work to «whitewash propaganda.»
Fayol talks about named former politicians who specialize in arranging business lunches with representatives in the French parliament. The price tag per meeting: 7000 euros. Others are more of a full-service package: a communications agency run by former politicians sent a bill of 1.5 million euros to the Azerbaijani embassy in Paris last year for arranging a series of meetings between well-known French politicians and businessmen from Baku, as well as for establishing a French-Azerbaijani friendship club with influential French members.
In French, there is a specific term for the transition of public officials to the private sector: «pantouflage». The word derives from the word for slipper (pantoufle) and indicates sneaking silently from one place to another. The word is so allegorical that Google Translate can’t translate it… But the Larousse dictionary specifies that the meaning is very negative. Fayol also thinks so. Although pantouflage is not legally illegal, it is morally reprehensible, according to Fayol. A political position should not be used for personal financial gain, but to serve the country!
For those interested in a detailed and verbose description of French former politicians and bureaucrats who have earned good money using their political network to secure lucrative contracts for foreign business empires in France, this book is a find.
Authoritarian heads of state
For those interested in political propaganda, role-playing, and politicians who think at least as much of themselves as of the country they govern, but who want a broader geographical and thematic impact, I would rather recommend Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. In this long-awaited book – it had record pre-orders and has already been reviewed in all major American newspapers – Ben-Ghiat focuses on selected authoritarian heads of state around the world. She tells how they came to power, how they manage to retain it, and how some of them have lost their position. She starts with Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler before moving on to Pinochet and Gaddafi, and then tackles Erdogan, Orbán, Putin, and Trump.
Strongmen is easy to read. It is well-written, sharp, and well-documented. Of the book’s 336 pages, the last 72 pages are references and footnotes. Throughout the book, I underline sentences that I think I will include in a direct quote in this review. For example, feminist Ben-Ghiat writes in the chapter on virility: «One thing was certain, once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again.» This is followed by a relatively detailed description of Il Duce’s most important mistresses, from Margherita Sarfatti and Leda Rafanelli via Bianca Ceccato and Cesira Carocci to Clara Petacci, before the author concludes that he also had a dozen semi-regular partners and «thousands of women he summoned, screwed.» Juicy? Yes. Politically interesting? Well…
«One thing was certain, once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again.»
She makes a big point that all strongmen (except Hitler) have the same misogynistic attitude. She takes on everything from President Trump’s «grab them by the pussy» attitude, Berlusconi’s infamous sex parties, to Gaddafi’s annual trips to the university in Tripoli to pick out students he wanted to have sex with. One of them says that Gaddafi was often high on cocaine when he raped her in the basement, and that «during the brutal sessions, which could last for hours, Gaddafi consumed Viagra like candy.» Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a tabloid, but history professor Ben-Ghiat is an academic celebrity in the USA. She teaches at New York University and writes regularly for The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as being a frequent guest on CNN.
Corruption, propaganda, and violence are also given their own chapters in the part of the book that describes how strongmen maintain power. Zaire under President Mobutu is described as the perfect kleptocracy. Here, Ben-Ghiat tells how both the USA and France, and the World Bank financially supported Mobutu with hundreds of millions of dollars, even though they knew he was building a giant private palace with an adjacent runway for the supersonic Concorde plane in his hometown of Gbadolite – in addition to placing large sums in Swiss bank accounts. She takes space to tell of Gaddafi’s enormous wealth built up from Libya’s natural resources. Once in 2008, $500 million worth of oil disappeared without anyone lifting a finger to find out where it went. When Gaddafi was killed in October 2011, he was the world’s richest man with a fortune of $200 billion. But didn’t we know this already?
Ben-Ghiat tells how corrupt presidents bought supporters by building networks of co-conspirators. If they didn’t stand up for the president later, it was easy for the president to get them convicted of corruption, as he had himself corrupted them! Ministers and top bureaucrats who were not convicted of corruption did not stay in their positions for long.
For a strongman who wants to maintain power, propaganda is as necessary as violence and virility: «The best propaganda builds on lies around a tiny bit of truth.» Ben-Ghiat compares the Italian population’s lack of literacy in Italian when Mussolini took power with the American population’s qualifications as media consumers today. Mussolini had to use propaganda newsreels, while Trump used 144 characters on Twitter. Although Mussolini claimed that Italy had the freest press in the world in 1929, he banned the use of question marks in all newspaper headlines in 1939 – question marks could sow doubt in the population, he argued. Few people read newspapers in today’s USA – Trump called both The New York Times and CNN «false, horrible, fake reporting.»
Putin and Belusconi
Newer strongmen like Putin, Orbán, and Erdoğan are more subtle in their ways of propaganda – they spread fake news, they initiate time-consuming and expensive procedures to get to run radio, TV, and newspapers. They monopolize internet access, and they threaten opponents with the mafia. But at the same time, they stage themselves as sovereign men of the people – remember the photograph of Putin riding shirtless in Siberia or Berlusconi half-naked at a party with a visible erection… Anything new here?
Also, violence is another long chapter. Hitler and the Nazi regime’s Holocaust are well known, but perhaps Americans are not as familiar with European war histories as we are? In any case, a lot of space is devoted to events I read about in high school. Descriptions of the violence committed by Franco and Pinochet do not bring much new information either. The fact that Erdoğan and Putin have a secret police force that beats up, imprisons, and makes enemies disappear, or that Trump called for 5000 soldiers to be sent to Washington D.C. in connection with the BLM protests in late May 2020, is also not unknown.
Ben-Ghiat writes in an engaging way. However, I am left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Is it too much like tabloid journalism? Why are there no new theories or models for how authoritarian leaders seize and maintain power? Isn’t comparing Trump to Hitler going a bit too far? Is Ben-Ghiat simply stating the obvious?