Sunday, October 07, 2007


He has been described as a skirt-chaser; she as mysterious, capricious, and detached.

These are not the usual adjectives newspapers use to describe a new country’s president and his wife. And yet the new French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and his wife, Cecilia, are as much an embodiment of the new generational change in French political power as they are symbols of the new word, “peopleisation.”

“Peopleisation” is not yet in the dictionary, but it already has a lengthy online Wikipedia description, including its various spellings: “pipeulisation, “ “pipolisation,” and the most current, “peoplelisation.”

Those are strange spellings because they’re French. Oui, and pronounced “people-ee-za-seeyon.”

I stumbled upon “peoplisation” in a conversation with a French lawyer I’ll call Veronique. She and I had started talking about President Sarkozy, or “Sarko,” as he is often dubbed, the first Baby Boomer President of France, and his wife, Cecilia. It seems that France’s new First Lady has displayed some rather unusual behavior before, during, and since this past spring’s election. And as Veronique got into the particulars of Sarko and Cecilia’s reported affairs, arguments, and odd conduct, I suddenly realized that she was dishing the dirt on them as if they were Brad and Angelina, or Tom and Kate, or Britney, K-Fed or any other regulars gracing the cover of People magazine (which does not exist in France – at least, not yet) or The National Enquirer.

This is what the French call “peopleisation”: it’s all about “celebrities,” not “people” as ordinary humans. “Peopleisation” is about the people who appear in what the French call the “presse people” – the “anglo-saxon–style” (French Wikipedia’s term) of weekly magazines and tabloid newspapers featuring people in the media, show biz, and in France right now, politics.

Voila “peopleisation” in French power and politics: On Sarkosy’s Inauguration Day this past May, the English newspaper, The Telegraph, gushed:
"Mrs Sarkozy looked more like a star arriving at the Cannes film festival than the matronly presidential consorts France is accustomed to.
Camera shutters whirred as the 49-year old former model, holding the hand of their ten-year-old son Louis, brought Jackie Kennedy glamour to proceedings in an ivory duchess satin Prada dress. Known to prefer T-shirts, combat trousers and cowboy boots, Mrs Sarkozy silenced at a stroke the critics of her dress-down style."

Though celebrity culture in France may have been around for a while, “peopleisation” has only emerged since around 2000 and is still not yet included in As a word, “peopleisation” reflects a definite English/American embrace. Yes, the French long ago adopted “le weekend” and “le Burger King,” but “peopleisation is their own invention. They could have substituted a French word for “people,” but they intentionally stuck with our word – a linguistic nod to the inventors of celebrity culture.

The English newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, had this to say about Cecilia at the G-8 Summit in Germany this past June:

"Like the Devil, she wears Prada, like Marie-Antoinette, she fascinates and antagonises people in equal measure … At the G8, she dazzled photographers with her toned body in an Azzedine Alaia black-laced, strappy dress. Nicolas was very attentive, as always, holding her hand, while she stood, aloof, with a steely smile and fiery eyes."

Monsieur Le President is not without his own attributes: alliterative adjectives punctuate articles in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, who refer to Sarkozy as “passionate,” “pragmatic,” and “pugnacious.”

But others dish a little more deeply – take Judith Warner, author of several non-fiction books ranging from politics to modern-day motherhood, as well as the New York Times blog, “Domestic Disturbances.” In her Sept. 13 posting last month, Warner referred to the “attractive tableau vivant of family disorder exhibited by France’s new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and first lady, Cécilia.”

Warner went on to explain some of the marital tensions that, in the U.S., might have destroyed a presidential campaign faster than you can say “cuckold” (an old English/Old French word referring to the female cuckoo bird, who is known to lay her eggs in other birds’ nests). Warner’s blog says:
"In case you missed it, Sarkozy last year greatly entertained France by running a campaign in which his wife was almost entirely absent. Cécilia, a former model whom Nicholas first eyed in his previous incarnation as mayor of the city of Neuilly, while administering the vows that consecrated her last marriage; she left him in 2005, eventually showing up – and being photographed – with her lover (a Moroccan advertising executive) in New York City.

The Sarkozys ultimately reunited. But life together remained rocky. Cécilia made major headlines once again last May when she pulled a no-show on the night of her husband’s final run-off race against his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal.
She was rumored not to have voted at all."

Cecilia hit American radar this past summer when she snubbed President Bush’s invitation to a picnic at the Bush family manse in Kennebunkport, Maine; at the last minute, she backed out, explaining that she and her children had “sore throats” and could not attend the picnic: so Sarko went solo.

The Sarkozys had been vacationing 50 miles away in Wolfeboro, NH and, according to the Times Online/UK, fellow vacationers noticed Mrs. Sarkozy strolling in shorts around town with friends, both the day before and the day after the picnic. Le Figaro, the most pro-Sarkozy newspaper, noted drily that the infection seemed to have come and gone as fast as lightning, adding, "The day before she was in good form, and the day after she was cured."

Over here, newspapers and online blogs, magazines, and newsletters, from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle to the Liberal Doomsayer to the Surf Wax News, commented on the “sore throat excuse” and gave Cecilia’s behavior a thumbs down.

A French Presidential term is five years – so just think of the rumors, gossip, and innuendos waiting in those Gallic wings. Not that it takes adultery and unconventional behavior in a Presidential couple to get our attention – but recent American history does prove that it’s pretty effective.

Bill Clinton would easily have been called “un lapid chaud” – or, “hot rabbit” – in France, during his administrations. Whether or not politicians-as-celebrities helps us elect the next one remains to be seen. Hillary is older and wiser and her relationship with Bill leaves little else to discover (I hope). Rudy and Judy? Spare me.

So far, “peopleisation” has only really touched Barak Obama -- as in the recent You Tube video sensation, “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama” in which a girl sings and fantasizes about how to get her favorite candidate’s attention.

In contrast, the past two French presidents both had tabloid potential in their lives, yet prior to 2000, the French press did not consider this type of news as peopleisation-worthy. Their transgressions made them human, not celebrities.

The German online magazine, Spiegel International (5/22/07), said of Francois Mitterand (1981-1995) and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), “Mitterrand had a mistress and paid for her accommodation with taxpayers' money. Shortly before he died, when he admitted to having an illegitimate daughter by her, it only served to give the man many in France referred to as "God" a more worldy image. Mitterrand's successor, Chirac, also had a reputation as a bon vivant.” But these men tended to hide their private lives.

Now, reporters like to comment on Sarkozy’s “in-your-face” style, his hob-nobbing with millionaire friends, his Rolexes and vacations on yachts – and his total lack of embarrassment in enjoying the good life. In short, says New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, Sarkozy “has broadcast that money’s okay.”

That’s “peopleisation.”

Clearly, Sarko is becoming prime meat for the press and paparazzi. He is outspoken, volatile, loves America, listens to an iPod, jogs, and is part Napoleon-part JFK. The “peopleisation” of this President will keep Sarkozy on the front pages of French newspapers, and at least in the first section of American papers and blogs for a while.

It’s taken thousands of years for “peopleisation”, the word, to emerge. From the Latin, “populus,” the French came up with “peuple” for a specific group of people and “gens” for people in general.

“Peopleisation” does not seem like a very French word and it will be interesting to see how long it takes to be made official. The French verbo-crats are so careful not to let English words slip into their formal speech. In France, there is a Ministry of Language that forbids Anglo words to become part of elevated speech: for example, this machine I am typing on cannot be called “le computer;” oh no – only “l’ordinateur” (pron: lor-dee-na-toor) will do.

The same ministry forbids naming your child anything too “extraordinaire” – Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter’s name, Apple; or Bob Geldof’s daughters’ names, Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom, and Little Pixie, would never fly with in France. (However, the French lawyer I spoke with did know of a pair of twins who were able to keep their names: Starsky and Hutch.)

Still, I’m betting that the English word “people” will eventually be accepted by the official French dictionary, and maybe even by the Ministry of Language: only “people” conveys that gossipy, trendy, paparazzi-craven world we so take for granted, but which is so new to the French.

And when Sarko’s term is up five or maybe ten years from now, perhaps he and his wife will find a new way to stay in the limelight. Maybe a TV show: “In the French Kitchen with Sarko and Cecilia.” Nothing like a little peopleisation while cooking over a hot stove: a dash of marital tension along with a splash of white wine … The celebrity weeklies can start salivating now.