Woman of no importance
By Zafar Masud
BY no stretch of imagination can Christine Boutin be described as someone addicted to provocation. A matronly figure of 66, she is a mother of three who at the moment has the entire French political scene in a state of turmoil.
The maverick trait in her nature already came to public attention as far back as the late ’70s when she first decided to step into a political career; her dynamism even then was undeniable and within three years she moved from the seat of an elected municipal councillor in the Parisian suburb of Yvelines to become its mayor.
Another six years and she found herself in the National Assembly as a member, and sometimes a rather quarrelsome activist for the ‘association for the right to life’, in other words an anti-abortion movement.
Forever a fast mover, by December 2001 Christine Boutin was a member of the centre-right party UDF led by FranÃ§ois Bayrou, an electrifying politician who has never failed, for the past decade and a half or so, to fascinate middle-class youths in big cities but without ever having much success in his relentless pursuit of France’s presidential chair. Bayrou was disagreeably surprised when his latest protÃ©gÃ©e started talking to the media about her own intention to be a presidential candidate in the forthcoming polls; he hastily dismissed her from the party but Boutin nevertheless persisted in her candidature independently, trailing far behind Bayrou and rendering the fear of threat to his leadership more or less ineffective.
By the time Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, Christine Boutin had managed to become a fairly noticeable member of the National Assembly, plunging head-on into a new cause – the plight of the homeless. Naturally enough Sarkozy’s Prime Minister FranÃ§ois Fillon decided to include her in his cabinet as minister for housing. She lost no time in making public a road map for the construction of half a million new abodes per year with the aim of turning as many as 70 per cent of the French citizens into home-owners in the following five years.
Those who were susceptible to Christine Boutin’s magic early on because of her anti-abortion and UDF episodes, and had by now forgotten all about her, were suddenly awakened by the news in the middle of last year that she had created her own Christian Democrat Party and, as its head, very much intended to be a candidate in the presidential ballot due in 2012.
Three days following this revelation, the prime minister announced a cabinet reshuffle that, among other things not directly connected with our story, reduced considerably the powers of the minister for housing. Boutin lost scant time in accusing both the prime minister and the president of trying to throw her out of the government. To placate her Nicolas Sarkozy, forever a negotiator par excellence, started thinking aloud whether it would not be a fine idea if Christine Boutin, with her newfangled passion for Catholicism, could be moved to the Vatican as FranceÂ’s ambassador. Smelling a holy rat, she declined the offer even before it could see the light of day.
A new offer came forth soon enough: would she like to head a special group to study the ‘social dimensions of globalisation’? Apparently this was an idea that appealed to her and Boutin left her ministry to lead a team of four experts to work on a report. Then came the surprise: Le Canard EnchaÃ®nÃ©, a weekly newspaper that specialises in investigative reporting (or scandal stories, as some evil tongues put it) revealed that Boutin was being paid 17,500 euros per month for the job, not to speak of the chauffeured limousine.
The ‘revelation’ would certainly have failed to cause any ripples had France, much like other European countries, not been traversing such troubled times and had Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bernard Madoff and Jerome Kerviel not become part of the common man’s vocabulary today owing to the international financial blowout. Other publications took off from where the Canard story had left and soon enough everyone was to know that the four other staffers under Boutin were being paid average salaries of 6,000 euros per month, perks not counting.
True to herself, instead of burying her head in the sand, Christine Boutin came forward to appear in the prime time news bulletin of the national television channel and talked in great length of the emoluments she was receiving: her salary as the director of the mission amounted to 9,500 euros and that the reported amount of 17,500 euros per month appeared ponderous only because to her salary the media were adding her pensions as an assembly member and a municipal councillor.
Then she dropped her first bombshell. “I am not resigning or anything, as the media and citizens’ groups would like me to, because I am performing a very interesting and useful job. However, I have decided to complete my mission free of charge and will not henceforth be paid a single penny as salary.” At the end of the interview she added quite casually: “It would not be out of question however if I happen to be a candidate in the next presidential elections.”
Currently the French media suddenly appear to have woken up to the fact that Boutin is not the only high-profile political figure heading a special government assignment and that a few of the current ministers had also been charged with similar missions, thus accumulating multiple salaries. The prime minister reacted by announcing he would take immediate measures to put an end to the practice.
While the controversy rages, Jean Lauvergeat, a well-known political analyst, puts it succinctly: “All this hullabaloo about Christine Boutin is pointless as she has done nothing illegal. Add to this the simple fact that she has never been, and can never be, a threat to anyone. She is of no importance!”
The writer is a journalist based in Paris.