She achieved success where even the most powerful men have failed – in Libya. For years she stood by the side of her husband, Nicolas Sarcozy, on his way to the presidency. She was the First Lady of France. Now she’s an author and works to ease the plight of women across the entire planet. Cecilia Attias is in today’s Sophie & Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Cecilia Attias, former First Lady of France. Cecilia, your new book is called “Une envie de verite” – “The desire for truth,” an autobiography. Now, the most remarkable episode in your life, as First Lady – as you’ve said many times – was the role you played in liberating a number of Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who’d been jailed in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi was still in charge. What was it like? I know you get that question a lot, but I still want to hear it from you once again.
Cecilia Attias: It’s a very interesting part of my life, if not the most important part of my life, because, I mean, just to say I tried and I released six persons, it’s important in the life. Those nurses and this doctor were condemned to death as you might know, and they were in jail for more than nine years, and I went there trying to make a difference, trying to talk not only with Gaddafi, but with his government, his prime minister and the people of Saif Al-Islam, who is his son. I tried hard with all my will to liberate those nurses and I succeeded. There were two important trips, one was 20 hours there, the second one was 45 hours dealing with all those people, and when I came back with the nurses it was really fabulous for me. I tell a lot in my book about this episode, it’s something very important for me, and think my life is all about that – trying to help others. That’s what I’m trying to do with my Foundation and to be able to release those nurses was for me a very important part of my life. I would like to tell you more about that, because it was really something huge and I’m happy that I did it.
SS: But also, Gaddafi wasn’t the easiest person to negotiate with – I mean many people who’ve met him or even those who knew him briefly, all say he wasn’t completely sane, and his son wasn’t the easiest person to communicate or negotiate with. What was he like when you were talking to him and negotiating with him about the lives of these people? Gaddafi, I mean.
CA: You know, he was very – how can I say? – maybe, he was on drugs or medicine… but he was listening. Maybe I was in the right place at the right moment, because as you might remember, those nurses were dying and part of his government wanted to keep those nurses and I told him, “It’s like killing someone, if you don’t release them, they are going to die in your jail. It’s maybe not the best image that you want to send to the world before not being anymore in charge of the country.”
Maybe I offered him something that he was lucky to receive – a chance to release those nurses and the doctor, they were really dying, and… I don’t know if you remember, he was always wearing a big map of Africa in his jacket and he told me, “I want to be a gate[way] for Africa,” and I told him, “How do you want to be a gate of anything if you are going to kill those nurses?” so I think it was a win-win deal and I went to see the nurses in the prison and then I went to see kids – remember, it was 450 kids infected with the HIV virus and 50 or 60 were already dead, and the others were in the hospital.
I went there, and there were very small kids and it was really sad. I told them that maybe we can help, send some medicine, doctors to take care of those kids, so… I think he was listening to me. When I was talking to him, in the middle of his, I mean, drugs, I don’t know, he was listening and he understood that it was maybe a way for him to [carry out] a humanitarian act in his life. I think I was at the right moment at the right place.
SS: You say “right moment, right place” – you went there as yourself, but also as the wife of the French president, and at that moment everyone knew that Nicolas Sarcozy and Gaddafi were friends. Why did their friendship end?
CA: Not at that moment, there were not friends; they were not talking to each other. It’s one part of the deal, and I told him that the French president will go on an official trip to Libya if they release the doctor and the nurses. It was part of the deal to be back again in the international scene – remember, he went to the UN after that. So, it was in his own interest as well. I knew how to deal with him; it was tough, it was long, it was a lot of discussions. It took me hours to deal with him, but he was listening and I think I had the right words and I knew, I felt… you know, women feel these kind of things – how to touch him and how to make him realize in his own interest. He had no interest to release them – people have tried, all the international community tried for years to go and release the nurses, and they didn’t succeed. Maybe, I found the right words to touch him and to make him interested in the deal. That was the only way to make him react.
SS: But also, I’m sure you’ve heard for many years now the allegations that Gaddafi was sponsoring Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. What do you say to them when people tell you about that?
CA: I don’t want to hear about that… I mean, I’m not interested in that, I don’t want to hear these kinds of things. I think it’s nonsense.
SS: So you sound like it was you being a woman who actually persuaded him and probably that actually added to the negotiating process. So, after that with your success as the negotiator, did that persuade you that you can actually play your own role in politics, beyond that of First Lady?
CA: Not in politics. The first reaction I had is to create my Foundation, because I receive a lot of e-mails and messages from all over the world – from Women’s Foundations or NGOs asking for help – and they thought I could help because I’ve had a will to do it, and they trust [me]. And I receive e-mails from all over the world [from] women really in need, asking me to give them a hand, which I did.
I created my own Foundation in the US, which is the “Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women” and it was like a foundation built by itself, because of what happened in Libya. Having a role in politics… at some point we thought about it, a few years ago, and to have, like, a legitimacy for me to work by Nicolas’ side, it was a way not to be criticized and to have a role.
As you might know, in France there is no official role for the First Lady. I think it was part, maybe, of helping me to help others, to have a special role and to really have a legitimacy and official role as the First Lady, or even the wife of a minister or prefect, what we call in France those people in charge of the regions. If the role is really official, with a budget and an [office], nobody could criticize... I think it’s important to talk about this, because you have the power to do a lot when you’re a First Lady or when you work with a minister on the side of your husband, and you can do a lot. But to do so you have to have really, you know, a frame[work].
That was the first thing, and then we thought maybe I could be elected, and then… you know my family, my kids were still very young and I wanted to take care of them and still work with my husband at that time.
SS: Does a woman need a strong man by her side to succeed in French politics, to actually push forward her ideas, or is she better off alone?
CA: I think a woman or a man… it’s not a gender problem. We have fabulous women and men politicians; it’s not a question of gender. If you’re married to a politician you can have your own professional life – it’s a question of choice – or decide to help your husband. If you want to be elected you have your own autonomy. But I think it’s not a question of gender, everyone chooses his own life and work in the skill he wanted to work in.
SS: But you waited until the end of Nicolas Sarcozy’s campaign to divorce him – why did you feel that was important to wait?
CA: I didn’t think it was important to wait; it was not a question of politics. I was married for a long time, I was living with him for more than 20 years, and our family, our couple had some problems, some issues and I tried to rebuild after those years – you know, we had a family – so I tried to rebuild my couple and my family. You cannot quit like this and get divorce in one or two months. It is too important, and I tried hard to rebuild my family and it was not the question of politics or agenda, never. It was only a matter of a couple having issues and trying to solve them. I didn’t succeed in solving my issues, but I tried hard.
SS: Now, your ex-husband’s party is picking up again these days. Do you share their vision for the country?
CA: You know, I try not to talk about politics, because for me… I left this country six years ago, I’m living on the other side of the Atlantic, in the US, and of course I have the news immediately, because of the media, internet – I know exactly what happens here in France as soon as you can know, but I don’t want to take part in the debate and I don’t want to judge anything. It’s not my role. Of course, I have my own opinion, but it’s for me and I don’t want to share it. The only thing is that I love this country, it’s my country, I love France and I would like this country to go better and be better, because we deserve it. There are amazing people living here, we have great talents. It’s a fabulous country and we deserve now to put this country back on the international scene.
SS: Now, you have said that France reminds you of a “beautiful lamp which isn’t lit.” What exactly do you mean by that?
CA: It’s like a museum, it’s a beautiful country, Paris is a beautiful city, but people are sad and it’s like there [is] no more will or dynamism in this country. When you travel all over the world, which I’m doing with my husband for my Foundation, I can see countries really with a fantastic dynamism and I think we have lost that in this country. When I talk to people, they have lost hope – and that’s a problem for me, because we are living in the fantastic world and in a great country, we have been through an economic crisis all over the world and France deserves to get out of the crisis and deserves to have back all that people which are leaving the country to go and work in other places. It’s very sad to see that, and it’s really like that, like a lamp with no light, and it’s sad for me.
SS: You surely thought about it, because you love your country more than anything – why did France lose its dynamism, what would you say is the main reason? Is this France’s problem only, alone, or is it because of the crisis, like you’ve said, a crisis in the Eurozone, maybe?
CA: The crisis was not only in the Eurozone, even in the US we had a crisis, it was a worldwide crisis, and the thing is that… Spain is starting to be back in the game, Ireland is starting to be back in the game, in the US unemployment is going below 7.2 percent, and they are creating jobs every month, so now we need France to be back in the game. Why is it longer and more difficult in our country? I don’t know, there is no miracle solution, and there is no explanation, I’m not a specialist in that and there are many people much more intelligent than me and specialist than me are working on that and they cannot find the solution. So I cannot give an explanation, but what I want is my country to be back.
SS: I just want to touch upon the theme of women in politics one more time, but precisely in France. I know that being a mayor of Paris is a stepping stone for many presidents of France. In the coming election in Paris two women will be fighting for the position – do these women have any chance, in your opinion, of becoming presidential candidates one day?
CA: I hope so, I really hope so. Look at the US, Hillary Clinton has more than a chance, she should and she might be the next president. [So] why not in our country? We are not that bad and we are smart enough for that demand, there is not much difference. I think it’s not because she’s a woman that she has more or less a chance, I think it’s about being a smart woman or man – once again, it’s not a gender problem, it’s about being capable, to have the will, the courage – because it’s not easy, politics is very violent, and that’s my only concern: are women tough enough?
Politics is very violent today and I hope that women will have the will and the desire to run for important jobs as minister or president of this country. I hope so.
SS: So, do you think you could run for president of France one day? I mean, you certainly have all it takes.
CA: No, I’m not sure that I’m capable of it. I’m living in the States now, so… we’ll see.
SS: So I take it’s not a definite “no” and we’ll leave it at that. But, you know, I was actually growing up in Paris, Cecilia, and when I was growing up in Paris, the National Front…
CA: Your French is perfect, I’ve heard you.
SS: Thank you very much, but our viewers haven’t heard my French, so they will have to take your word for my French. Anyway, to get back to my childhood – I was growing up in Paris, and when I was growing up, the National Front, “Front National,” was a marginal party that no one took seriously. Now Marine Le Pen, whom I’ve interviewed couple of months ago, is one of the most popular politicians in France and her party is gaining ground. As someone who knows France, how do you explain this, why does this party resonate with one-third of your country so much?
CA: You know, when country is afraid or worried, you go to the extremes. Marine Le Pen tried to change the image of her party, but it’s the same, it’s the “Front National,” it is the extreme party of the right, which is frightening and I don’t want that for my country. People have to be aware that it’s not a joke, we are not talking about something easy. It’s a danger for our country: you have to be very, very careful with that, so when the country is worried, people are worried, they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, they don’t know where the employment is going, they don’t know how the economy is going, they are starting to put hope into those extremes. We have to be very careful with that.
SS: Every French person that I’ve spoken to recently admits that immigration has become more of a problem, since the boundaries are open now. If it were up to you, as a regular citizen, what would you do with the immigration problem, because I have to say it does uncomfortable on the streets of Paris sometimes and this wasn’t there 10-15 years ago?
CA: It’s very difficult to me to answer your question, because that’s internal politics and we have people in charge today, so it’s very difficult to me to answer. I know that we have to be careful with the immigration, we cannot open our doors to everybody every time, but we have to be very tolerant – so it’s a mix of a lot of different postures. It’s not my role to talk about it.
SS: Neither of your parents were born French – your father was from the Russian Empire and your mom was from Spain. You’ve became a target for Marine Le Pen because of that. Now, having felt it personally, what do you think about the level of xenophobia in France.
CA: We have a global world and people are moving from one country to the other, which is a good thing, because if you have difficulties or issues in your country you can go and find work in other foreign countries. In the US if you don’t have work and you are living in Montana, you’re trying to go to Wyoming to find work. Europe is big and we created Europe to have this citizenship, going from one country to the other. The world now is getting smaller and smaller because of the internet and the way of communications, planes, trains, cars, whatever. We have to have a special rule because of that – we have to protect our identity, we have to protect our country, but we cannot close it completely, so it’s very delicate subject but we have to think about it and try to find the right way to live in a modern world.
SS: I want to talk to you about Gerard Depardieu; he made a lot of headlines here in Russia after giving up his French citizenship. There are others like him as well; they are leaving the country to avoid such high taxes – what is your attitude, your opinion toward that? Is it unpatriotic or is it okay?
CA: I told you at the very beginning of our talk. We have great talents in this country and I don’t want talents to leave this country, it is so dramatic and sad. Those people have to stay in their country and we have to find the way to have the economy back, employment back. I was in London few days ago to sign my book in a French bookstore, and there were a lot of people, French people, who left their country not because of the taxes but because they have no hope in France and not because they don’t want to pay anything, it’s because they found a job in London or in England or in Belgium and they didn’t find a job in France. So, it’s a bigger problem than that, it’s only that our country is not doing well at all and people are leaving because they need to work and to earn money – and they don’t have chances or opportunities in this country.
SS: I want to talk a bit about your Foundation; you talk about it in your book, you’ve mentioned it twice during our interview. It’s called “Fondation Cécilia Attias pour les femmes”, there are forums and discussions hosted by it. How exactly is your Foundation helping real women in everyday life?
CA: We’re helping more than [just] women; we’re helping foundations or NGOs around the world. It’s very difficult for me to be in the field, to go to Africa or to South America to help people. I try to be a helping hand for foundations in need around the world and that started, as I told you, after the Libyan episode in my life. We’re trying to give a voice to these foundations. What does it mean? It means putting them around the table and giving them a voice to tell us their issues and what they are looking for, what they are fighting against. It’s always women’s matters, but we try to find what I call “the response” – the dialog for action that happens every year, it’s like helping those foundations to find a response to their problems. We can sit around the table with some media partners, some people from the government, in charge of the country, people from the business world, to try to find a solutions or responses to those foundations in need.
SS: Cecilia, thank you so much for this interview, and I want to wish you good luck with everything you decide to undertake.
CA: Thank you so much.
SS: That’s all that we have for now. We were talking to Cecilia Attias, author and former First Lady of France. We will see you in the next edition of Sophie & Co.