Julian Borger – November 8, 2011
There may be no true windows in to the souls of politicians, but perhaps the inadvertently open microphone is an aural equivalent – the briefest of glimpses of what lies beneath the polished veneer of stock phrases and party lines.
Thus we discovered yesterday what Nicolas Sarkozy really thought of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. At the G20 meeting in Cannes the French president was clearly unaware a nearby microphone was open when he turned to Barack Obama and said: “Netanyahu, I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.”
The US president, according to the French translator, replied: “You’re sick of him? I have to work with him every day.”
Incidentally, the fact that we are only learning this four days after the event says something about French media culture. The journalists who heard the exchange on their headphones before a press conference apparently did not report it immediately because the comments were deemed private under “French press traditions”. It was a media watchdog website, Arrêt sur images, whothat finally leaked the remarks.This is up there with the best of past open-mic gaffes. It is reminiscent of John Major referring to his Eurosceptic cabinet colleagues in 1993 as “bastards”, in a post-interview chat with an ITN reporter. There is also George Bush junior’s open-mic aside to Dick Cheney, referring to a prominent New York Times reporter in 2000 as a “major league asshole”.
Those cases somehow said less about the intended targets than the speakers. Major and Bush had gone out of their way to cultivate an image of politeness and fair play, and for a moment the curtain was swept aside. Similarly, Bush’s open-mic conversation with Tony Blair at the G8 summit in Russia (“Yo Blair. How are you doing?”) said as much about his casual lack of respect for foreign leaders as it did about Blair’s obsequiousness around the American leader.
On balance, Sarko’s aside does more damage to Netanyahu. After all, he came to power as the most pro-Israel French president in decades and is clearly losing patience. To call someone a ‘liar’ is no profanity (although MPs are not permitted to apply it to each other in parliament), but is all the more cutting because of it, especially with another world leader nodding in agreement. It reinforces Netanyahu’s image at home as an opportunist who is losing Israel friends abroad.
Oh to be a fly on the wall at their next encounter.