The Worst Person in the World (well, in France)
One of my favorite American political commentators, Keith Olbermann, used to do a feature segment on his nightly TV show called "The Worst Person in the World".
It was a ritual naming-and-shaming of not one, but three, people ("worse", "worser" and "worst") who had earned Olbermann's opprobrium for an especially despicable deed or utterance.
Most of the impugned were Tea Party types, or Bush ('W') cronies, or right-wing talk-show hosts (though Barack Obama also qualified for ignominy once, back when he was still a Senator).
In this May 2010 segment, Sarah Palin got the worst of the worst drubbing:
Were Olbermann based here in France, he might find ample grist for his worst-person mill among the French political elite.
Sarkozy's éminence grise
My hands-down candidate for Worst (Gallic) Person in the World would have to be Claude Guéant. He's the current French Interior minister. But his title belies his real power as a shrewd political guru who's widely regarded as the eminence grise behind Sarkozy's throne.
Guéant's hardline stance on illegal immigrants, Muslims, and security issues resonates with those of France's far right National Front party - though Guéant would staunchly deny any affiliation.
A man who's never far from the headlines, he's been making some especially big ones lately, for alleged skullduggery during his previous stint as Sarkozy's Chief of Staff.
Le Monde newspaper has accused the DCRI, the French secret services, of spying on one its journalists in order to snuff out one of his sources. The journalist had been investigating alleged tax evasion and illegal party funding involving the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.
What began last year as a clash (over money) between the octogenarian Bettencourt and her daughter, the "Bettencourt affair" has mushroomed into a full-blown scandal that's raised questions about Sarkozy's financial ties to his onetime billionaire neighbor in the Paris suburb of Neuilly.
It's alleged that Guéant, in a bid to protect Sarkozy from fallout from the Bettencourt affair, ordered the secret services in July 2010 to obtain the detailed phone records of the Le Monde journalist.
The records enabled the spy agency to trace the journalist's source to an adviser in the Justice Ministry, who was subsequently dispatched to French Guyana.
Violating the secrecy of sources
In a front-page editorial entitled "Press Freedom and State Lies", that ran on September 1 (in the edition dated September 2), Le Monde blasted the State for violating the secrecy of journalistic sources and, in the process, undermining the role of the press as a check on power.
It also took aim at the highest echelons of the French State for "using public resources towards private ends and to protect the party of the president, never hesitating to divert the police away from their true mission of protecting citizens."
Finally, Le Monde suggested that Guéant had headed up a "black cell" within the Elysée Place, where Sarkozy lives and works, whose select cabal also included the country's then-Interior minister, Justice minister and the Secretary General of Sarkozy's UMP party.
The scandal received prominent coverage in the French press on the day after Le Monde splashed with it on its front page.
The spokesman for the opposition Socialist party, Benoît Hamon, evinced outraged, saying that "in any normal democracy, he (Claude Guéant) would have been gone".
As for the public, it greeted the allegations, which had been floating around for over a year, with a Gallic shrug of indifference.
At this point you might - especially if you're not French - raise your eyebrows and ask, 'Why such public complacency'?
Those 'elitist' journalists
Part of the reason lies in the wariness and downright distrust that many ordinary French harbour towards the national press, which is typically seen as a tribune for the elite that is overly cozy with the politicians they are supposed to cover.
Many believe that journalists simply lie - an attitude that is hardly discouraged by Sarkozy, who does a bad job (does he even try?) of hiding his contempt for many of the journalists who cover him.
But surely, an affair of this magnitude, if borne out by the facts - a secret cell at the highest echelons of power, created to shield the political interests of a President flagging in the polls and facing a tough re-election battle - surely, that's worthy of more than ambivalence?
In the US, a similar scandal blew up a few years back, involving a break-in at the headquarters of the president's Democratic opposition. It was dubbed Watergate. And it ended up costing Richard Nixon his job.
No one, including myself, is seriously comparing this scandal to that watershed in American political life - though I suggesteed as much in a tongue-in-cheek tweet last week.
But I am suggesting there is room for a more pointed public debate, and a stronger dose of indignation.
French lawyers I've chatted with point out that while France's constitution does have provisions for impeachment - articles 67 and 68 - they only apply in cases where the president is deemed to have committed grave offenses that are "manifestly incompatible" with the exercise of his office.
Former French President Jacques Chirac got permission this week, on grounds of failing memory, to absent himself from his own criminal trial on corruption charges dating back to his years as Mayor of Paris. He was the first French presdient to face criminal charges since Marshal Philippe Pétain - just after WWII.
In the lurching French system of jurisprudence, where high-level corruption cases can take years to wend their way through the system, proving Guéant's - let alone Sarkozy's - guilt would be a Sisyphean task for any investigating judge.
Horrifying, brutal US justice
"Criminal proceedings in the United States are horrifying, and brutal," one lawyer told me. "The stakes are never as high (in France) as in the US", where sentences can often stack up to decades behind bars after multiple charges are taken into account.
Before the charges against him were dropped last month in an attemped rape case, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had at one point been facing the possibility of a 75-year jail term.
Sarkozy benefits, of course, from presidential immunity.
But even if a case were brought against him, his majority in the National Assembly would safeguard their standard bearer from the political humiliation of a "procédure de destitution", the french equivalent of impeachment.
Not to mention public opinion, which is likely to see any presidential trial as a disproportionate, media-driven assault against an incumbent head of state.
To many French, my merely evoking the possibility of impeachment against Sarkozy betrays an American sensibility (read: naiveté).
Yet even if Sarkozy is, ultimately, beyond reproach in this journalistic espionnage affair, Claude Guéant surely has more to answer for.
Can a day in court be too much to ask for The Worst Person in the World?