Today I need your help on my latest project. Call me mad, call me stupid, but I am thinking of writing another book. It would be in English -of course-, and it would be a French political thriller (chick lit style). What do you think? Would you read a book like this?
So what would it be about? Well, to cut a long story short, if would be about what would have happened if a French female President had been elected. My character, Veronique Boyer, would be a sexy older lady (a cross between Christine Lagarde and Brigitte Macron). She would be an outstanding president, but her private life would go from bad to worse (as in from REALLY bad to EVEN worse).
I have decided to share with you, my readers, the Prologue and the first chapter. Any comment/suggestions helps…
Oh, and before I forgot: I haven’t edited it yet, so please excuse any typo/gallicism…
Arnaud Dubruis, the Darling of the French media, was quietly sitting amongst the 300 guests at the Elysee reception speech. For once he wasn’t covering the event. He wasn’t checking his microphone or discussing with the cameraman. No, this time, he was just waiting for the President to enter the paved square, and he didn’t have much else to do. He couldn’t help thinking that things would soon become a lot more complicated: the newly elected President happened to be his wife.
Come to think of it, love stories between journalists and politicians were quite common in Paris. More often than not, knowing who had slept with who was a guessing game in his social circle. However, such affairs usually involved a young sexy female journalist and a slightly older party leader. Sometimes, they even got married. That said, it usually ended in tears, as had happened between the former President and his journalist girlfriend, who took it very badly when her lover was caught having a 5 a 7 with a younger actress after a popular theater play. The title of one of the many articles was ‘Caught In the Act’. The regular girlfriend found it extremely humiliating. It must be said that, in due course, she took the whole sorry affair in her stride, and wrote another popular play about the whole experience. Never underestimate a scorned woman.
Arnaud couldn’t help thinking that the French press did not have the same “mindset” than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart when it came to political stories. For instance, in Britain, the media played an active role in democracy – it was the fourth estate. French journalism had never aspired to such ambitions. If there were a counter power in France it would be the people. Politicians and journalists had always enjoyed a cosy relationship. Sometimes a bit too cosy, anyway, here he was, and he felt a bit like a Prince Consort.
It had all gone fast between Veronique and Arnaud. He had been named as the most eligible French bachelor the year before, and had had the opportunity, as a well-respected journalist, to interview her. They had just clicked, and their on-screen chemistry was so obvious that, for a short while, the newspapers couldn’t talk about much else.
The presidential-hopeful Veronique Boyer, at 53 years old, was 15 years Arnaud’s senior. He had had many relationships before –women were not shy with him, and he had always loved the attention. He didn’t want to settle, he was much more interested in uncovering scandals, and investigative journalism had always been his burning passion. But she was, well, different. It was hard to explain why. It was probably a mixture of charisma and class. She exuded confidence and oozed sensuality at the same time. She looked her years, and it clearly didn’t matter. She was a beautiful woman, in the same league than Catherine Deneuve or Jane Fonda. She also had this amazing capacity to fill an empty room with hope and pragmatism. Unlike her fellow politicians, she wasn’t obsessed with French literature, and he had never heard her quote Marcel Proust ‘In search of lost time’ or other French classics. She was always pragmatic, and keen to find solutions. She was, well, something else.
It was an open secret that she had just finalised her divorce with her husband, who was a general and the heir of a well-known family in France. Her three children were grown-up. Despite being divorced –France remains rather traditional-, her fresh ideas soon became the only options in a clogged, old-fashioned political landscape. It had been a landslide victory, and nobody had seen it coming. Nobody knew what to expect. She was the first French female president.
She was late. Of course she was. The media were becoming nervous. Where was she? An ex-colleague tried to get some information from Arnaud, but he just shrugged. How was he supposed to know where she was?
“You don’t keep the crew waiting like that”, he said, annoyed.
In pure French style, she didn’t consider it important to be on time. In fact, she was always at least 20 minutes late. But today, there was a sort of greatness to her lateness. She wanted to be desired.
Outside the Élysée, a few dozen supporters waved French tricolour and European blue flags at the arrival of the new President. She stepped out of her car and waved, to the delight of her supporters. Despite being incredibly tired, she was beaming.
She was wearing a black and white Chanel outfit, a timeless dress that she seemed to be born in. It was moving with her, and enhancing her slim frame. Her thick, brown hair was arranged in a flawless chignon. She discreetly smiled at Arnaud. All cameras zoomed on him.
‘It’s good to be the envy of the world’ he thought to himself.
During the speech, she spoke slowly and clearly, explaining that she would fight divisions, revive the economy and help France reach its full potential. It was a good speech, and it received several rounds of applause.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur. A couple of hours later, the presidential couple were climbing the stairs of their new home for the next five years. They were still holding hands when one of their protection officers came to Veronique to let her know that a small riot had just been contained at the Place de la Republique. Nothing to worry about, he said, but he wanted to keep her posted.
‘ What was the demonstration about?’ Veronique asked, unfazed.
‘It looked like illegal immigrants. They didn’t like your hard stance on immigration, Madame la Presidente’.
‘Thank you. I will deal with it later.’
She switched the TV on when they arrived to the living room. The demonstrators were waving Algerian and Moroccan flags, shouting that they needed official French papers. The camera zoomed in on a veiled woman who was shouting ‘Equal rights for us’. To Arnaud’s surprise, Veronique couldn’t take her eyes off the screen. Her usual bravado had vanished, and for the very first time, Arnaud discovered a vulnerable woman.
She slowly put her hand on the TV screen, as if she wanted to touch the face of the woman. A tear started to roll on her cheek.
‘What is going on Veronique?’ he has never ever seen her like this before.
‘ It’s Aicha’, she muttered ‘Oh My God, it’s her’
And she started sobbing uncontrollably.
Arnaud suddenly realised that he had no idea who Veronique really was.
He tried to calm her down, patted her in her back, and reminded her that she needed to get changed for her first official travel to Brussels. She nodded.
‘This is going be more difficult that I thought’ Arnaud said to himself.
Veronique Boyer’s clear-cut victory was even bigger than she herself had imagined or had hoped for. It clearly offered her the legitimacy she would need in her next steps. However, the journey was far from over. She had to have a good majority at the Assemblee Nationale –the French Parliament. Without it, her only hope would be to pass laws using the unpopular 49.3 article. This clause allowed the government to impose the adoption of a text by the assembly, immediately and without a vote, that the assembly could not oppose without toppling the government through a motion of no confidence. 49.3 was the ‘nuclear option’ for passing a bill. She needed to move fast to avoid such a bad alternative. It would make her the most unpopular President, and she couldn’t afford to lose the people’s support. The elections were in less than a month. She also needed to nominate her government. Arnaud was in a festive mood, but she had to stay focused. She explained to him that it wasn’t the time to get distracted. Could he think of potential ministers? She asked him. Arnaud looked at her and smiled. He was happy to make himself useful. Of course he could help. He started looking for names immediately.
In Paris, just like every day over the last week, the rain and cold weather hadn’t deterred thousands of supporters from converging on the Trocadero place to celebrate the victory of Veronique Boyer in France’s presidential elections. Impromptu celebrations had been happening every night over the last week, which was unprecedented.
Indeed, the Une Republique Forte leader’s victory, with about 69% of the vote, over far-left candidate Georges Tandou had opened a new era in French politics – no more two traditional parties of Right and Left, but at the same time (unfortunately for Veronique) also a growing resentment against capitalism, and very good results of the extreme left. What seemed impossible at the beginning of the presidential campaign some six months ago has become a reality, with an independent president who owed nothing to anybody.
When, less than a year ago, Veronique had left the Conservative party to establish her own movement, most pundits considered her move politically erroneous, premature at best and blatantly stupid. Already, as a MP for her native Provence, Veronique had few political allies within the Conservative Party. When she left, none of her colleagues joined her, and she was expelled from the Party a few weeks later.
The risk she took was hers, and hers alone. But her gamble had paid off. To her, it was a last-ditch attempt to get the responsibilities she had always craved and that she knew she would be good at. She had always felt that she was the brightest in the room, but it was as if nobody could see her. She was doing all the legwork for the party leaders, only to be overlooked for promotions or nominations because she didn’t belong to inner circle of the Conservatives. She was a provincial woman, and as such she didn’t stand a chance. It was time to shake things up.
In addition to determination and perseverance, Veronique’s associates were convinced that luck also had been very much on her side. A series of terrorist attacks had shaken France, and the far-left anti-militarist approach had played against Tandou in the end. This, they said, had played into her hands, and Veronique did not hesitate to use it in statements on TV and elsewhere, praising the army ethics, and pledging to beef up the French intelligence services. They had been left in tatters after years of chronic under-investment under previous governments. France was the laughing stock of Europe on intelligence matters. The last recruitment campaign had been a disaster: new recruits had had to wait for months to get laptops and other basic equipment, and crucial information had been missed.
Recently, she even had declared that one of her first moves if and when she entered the Elysee Palace would be preparing a law on re-establishing a military service for everybody.
Still, despite her extraordinary margin of victory, Veronique knew the forces she would have to face-off during her term as president were tremendous.
However, what Veronique had performed was nothing short of a miracle: she had become a true political force over the last few months without giving in to the extreme right. She had always stayed on the good side of the boundary between firmness and hate. Never could she have been accused of xenophobia or protectionism, because she knew that blaming somebody else never worked in the long run. Despite her strong stance on immigration and terrorism, she was a true democrat. She had managed to stop the rising power of the far right across France just by explaining over and over that everybody would need to make an effort, and that her priority would be to keep the people safe. She promised to renegotiate the European treaties to get a better deal for France. Unlike her many colleagues, she sounded sincere. She had a way of saying such things that ringed true. Nobody had seen a politician like her before.
In short, Veronique’s victory over Tandou was the start of a new era.
She would now have to act quickly in establishing her own party and presenting candidates in the legislative elections, as she had promised to do. Even if she managed to get some of his people into the parliament, however, Veronique would need to win over many of the incumbent parliament members – mostly from the Conservative Party which she had left so abruptly, but also from the centre and possibly the Socialists.
Some had already expressed a willingness to join her, though Veronique was careful to make no promises. Funnily enough, they often called Arnaud who had become her unofficial campaign manager. He told her in no uncertain terms that too many of the “old guard” could do her more harm than good. He was right. She had to garner a parliamentarian majority in order to govern, while keeping the fresh image of new politics disconnected from the old system. Easier said than done.
What a year it had been! She had finally left her marriage to Jean d’Hautemont when their last child had passed her Baccalaureat with flying colours, and had been accepted to the best Classes Preparatoires of the country, at Louis Le Grand.
This was how the French elite was educated.
Wikipedia explained it in a very clear way:
‘The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) (English: Higher School Preparatory Classes), commonly called classes prépas or prépas, are part of the French post-secondary education system. They consist of two very intensive years (extendable to three or exceptionally four years), which act as a preparatory course (or cram school) with the main goal of training undergraduate students for enrollment in one of the grandes écoles. The workload is one of the highest in the world (between 35 and 45 contact hours a week, plus usually between 4 and 6 hours of written exams, plus between 2 and 4 hours of oral exams a week and homework filling all the remaining free time).’
The higher education system in France was made up of both universities and Grandes Ecoles. It was the Grandes Ecoles that prepare the administrative, scientific and business executives for their place as leaders in government or in private enterprise. It was common knowledge that they, rather than universities, were where France’s technical and managerial elites were educated. Needless to say, Grandes Ecoles were very selective, and it was only about academic achievements.
Veronique felt that she had done everything she could to keep the family together for so long. Jean’s career had taken off when he had become in charge of the Special Forces, and he had been nominated general a few years later. He had been a popular Army chief and had been a close adviser to many Prime Ministers and Interior Ministers. His opinion and his military ethic were nothing short of exemplary. However, in pure French aristocratic style, he had a roving eye. As he was traveling a lot to the remotest, most conflict-ridden places of earth, Veronique had had to learn from a young age to be on her own and get on with her life.
Come to think of it, the divorce had been a gradual build-up. The problems had festered to the point where no one cared. Sometimes, she even felt grateful for the freedom he was giving her. But his last affair had just been the last straw for Veronique. The woman had just turned sixteen, and was even younger than their younger daughter. For the first time in decades, she thought that the good was not outweighing the bad. She thought he was disgusting. What she had accepted over decades suddenly hit her and she knew that she simply couldn’t go on.
Jean didn’t understand what was going on. To him, no harm had been done. He didn’t want to split up with Veronique, because that wasn’t what men of his family and rank did. He said that she needed to be reasonable and keep the family together. She wasn’t having any of it. Enough was enough.
He had clearly underestimated his wife. She threatened to go public with the name and age of his latest conquest. He had no choice but to accept her terms. He was furious. She had won. In fact, from the start he hadn’t stood a chance against her.
The message to family friends stated, “We are announcing today that after a great deal of thought and discussion, we have decided to go our separate ways.” Veronique had written it, of course. Jean was fuming. In the army, you didn’t get divorced. And what would his Catholic family say?
Veronique couldn’t care less. She had waited for this moment for so long that she wanted to turn over a new leaf as soon as possible. She had met Arnaud shortly afterwards, and they had just hit it off.
They were now living together in the Elysee palace. He was sweet, helpful and patient. She could count on him. He was also reliable and had the stamina and carefree attitude to satisfy her need for a different experience. With him, she discovered that she was no longer sexually inhibited, that she knew what she wanted, and felt good about herself.
Arnaud turned around and saw her daydreaming. He looked worried.
‘ Listen, Veronique, nobody from the Conservatives wants to join your government, because they have been told that they would be expelled. They still think that they can get a majority at the assembly. They want you to fail. We need to think outside of the box here.’
‘They are already calling you Mrs 49.3.’, he added.
‘ What did you have in mind my Love?’ She knew he had good ideas. Surely he must have thought this through.
‘ I hate it, but I think that we need to ask your ex to be Army minister. He is popular, and he will be able to convince them that you are not the enemy. And if you convince him, it will be difficult for your old friends to shun you.’
Veronique couldn’t speak. She was thinking. They hadn’t exactly parted in good terms. That said, did she really have a choice? Arnaud was right: Jean would reassure the Conservatives. He was a fresh face in the political arena: he had close ties with the government, but didn’t have any official party affiliation with the Conservatives. And he was a national hero. Furthermore, if she could make peace with her ex for the sake of her country, it would surely send a strong signal that it was time to unite for the greater good. She could already imagine the press articles:
‘Veronique Boyer’s complicated personal life took another twist this week when she was forced to call on her ex husband to be part of her newly formed government as Army minister. Jean d’Hautemont – who is the father of Boyer’s three children – will be asked to lead the ceremonies of the National day, next to Boyer’s new husband, Arnaud Dubruis.’
‘ I will call him tomorrow. I can’t face him tonight.’
‘ Oh, and who was this woman on the TV after your speech? You seemed to know her.’ Arnaud asked.
Veronique’s face went all pale. She didn’t respond immediately.
‘ She used to be my flat mate at la Sorbonne. We were very close, but she had to go back to Algeria. I never heard from her again.’ There was an unusual tremble in her voice.
Armaud was an investigative journalist at heart. He could see that Veronique had told the truth, but not the whole truth.
‘ I’ll get to the bottom of this’, he thought to himself.’ Now, we need to find Veronique the right Prime Minister’.