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Political propaganda, role mixing and politicians – Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Pinochet, Gaddafi, Erdogan….

These French from the foreign service
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
Forfatter: Clément Fayol, Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Forlag: Plon, W.W. Norton & Co, (Frankrike, USA)

DICTATORS: It is your network of contacts that shows who you are and that gives you a job.

When I studied mass communication in Paris in the 1980s, the philosophy teacher told me that he would rather hire a person with a thick pile of business cards than one with a thick pile of university diplomas. He himself had nine different master's degrees and taught as a part-time teacher at various more or less good private schools in the Paris region. My old teacher must have liked Clément Fayol's new book Ces français du service de l'étranger ("Frenchmen in Foreign Service"). Although Fayol says that at ministerial and bureau level it is important that you have attended the right schools (ENA, HEC Paris, Sciences Po Paris…), it is your network of contacts that shows who you are and that gives you jobs and perks. . Fayol shows that the French political power elite often takes jobs that lobbyistis for the private business sector after losing an election or retiring early. As employees of PR and communications agencyare ex-politicians trying to influence their former colleagues, people in their own networks.

In Norway, Kristian Rindheim has shown that as many as one in four Storting politicians transfer to the communications industry after completing their political career. Here at home, we have discussed whether this is a moral problem or a democratic problem, or both. The discussion has not ended even though the Storting in 2015 passed the Quarantine Act – Politikere and top bureaucrats have to wait half a year before they can work for private companies in the field they themselves managed as public employees.


Fayol focuses on those who, after a public career, start working for foreign interests in France. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman was on a charm offensive in Europe in 2018, a tour organized in France by the same PR agency that ran La République en Marches and Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign in 2017, a number of newspapers were offered arranged, extended reportage trips to the country. Le Monde said yes, French Mediapart, where Fayol works, said no. Fayol did not want to work to "launder propaganda".

"Once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again."

Fayol talks about named ex-politicians who specialize in arranging business lunches with representatives in the French parliament. Price tag per meeting: 7000 euros. Others are more total suppliers: Last year, a communications agency run by former politicians sent a bill of 1,5 million euros to the Azerbaijani embassy in Paris for arranging a series of meetings between well-known French politicians and businessmen from Baku – and for having established a French-Azerbaijani Friendship Club with influential Frenchmen as members.

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In French, there is a separate word for talking about the transition of public officials to the private sector: pantouflage. The word originates in the word slipper (slipper) and indicates that one sneaks silently from one place to another. So allegorical is the word that Google Translate is unable to translate it… But the Larousse dictionary emphasizes that the meaning is very negative. Fayol thinks so too. Although pantouflage is not legally illegal, it is morally reprehensible, Fayol believes. A political position should not be used for one's own financial gain, but to serve the country!

For those interested in a detailed and wordy description of former French politicians and bureaucrats who have made good money by using their political network to secure foreign business empires lucrative contracts in France, this book is a find.

Authoritarian Heads of State

For those who are interested in political propaganda, role-playing and politicians who think at least as much about themselves as in the country they govern, but who want a broader field of focus, geographically as well as thematically, I would rather recommend Ruth Ben-Ghiat's new book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. In this long-awaited book – it had record-breaking pre-orders and has already been featured in all leading American newspapers – Ben-Ghiat addresses selected authoritarian heads of state in the world. She tells how they came to power, how they managed to keep it, and how some of them have lost their position. She starts with Mussolini, Franco and Hitler before, via Pinochet and Gaddafi, attacks Erdoğan, Orbán, Putin and Trump.

Strongmen is easy to read. It is well-written, well-worded and well-documented. Of the book's 336 pages, the last 72 pages are references and endnotes. Throughout the book, I underline sentences that I think I should include in the direct quote in this review. For example, feminist Ben-Ghiat writes in the chapter on virility: “One thing was certain, once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again. » This is followed by a relatively detailed description of The Dukes most important mistresses, from Margherita Sarfatti and Leda Rafanelli via Bianca Ceccato and Cesira Carocci to Clara Petacci, before the author concludes that he also had a dozen halfway regular partners and "thousands of women he summoned, screwed". Juicy? Yes. Politically interesting? Well.

When he was killed, Gaddafi was the world's richest man with a fortune of $ 200 billion.

But she makes a big point that all strongmen (except Hitler) have the same misogynistic attitude. She covers everything from President Trump's "grab them by the pussy" attitude via Berlusconi's famous sex parties to Gaddafi's annual trips to the University of Tripoli to pick out students he wanted to have sex with. One of them says that Gaddafi was most often high on cocaine when he raped her in the basement, and that "during the brutal sessions, which could last for hours, Gaddafi consumed Viagra like candy". Sometimes I feel like I'm reading See and Hear, but history professor Ben-Ghiat is an academic celebrity in the United States. She teaches at New York University and writes regularly for the New York Times and Washington Post in addition to being a regular guest on CNN.


Corruption, propaganda and violence are also devoted to separate chapters in the part of the book that describes how the strongmen retain power. Zaire under President Mobuto is described as the perfect kleptocracy. Here, Ben-Ghiat recounts how both the United States and France and the World Bank financially supported Mobuto with hundreds of millions of US dollars, despite knowing that he built a giant private palace with an adjacent runway for the supersonic Concord plane in his hometown of Gbadolite – in in addition to placing large sums in Swiss bank accounts. She uses space to talk about Gaddafi's enormous wealth built up from Libya's natural resources. Once in 2008, $ 500 million worth of oil disappeared without anyone lifting a finger to find out where it ended up. When Gaddafi was killed in October 2011, he was the world's richest man with a fortune of $ 200 billion. But did we not know this before?

Corrupt presidents

Ben-Ghiat talks about how corrupt presidents bought supporters by building networks of conspirators – if they did not run for president later, it was easy for the president to get them convicted of corruption, he had corrupted them himself! Ministers and top bureaucrats who were not convicted of corruption, however, did not stay long in their positions.

For example, every three years, Mussolini used to replace half of his ministers to make sure no one could threaten his power. Pinochet replaced people in government 49 times during his tenure as head of state. Trump operated in the same way.

For a strongman who wants to retain power, propaganda is as necessary as violence and virility: "The best propaganda is based on lies about a little truth." Ben-Ghiat compares the Italian population's lack of literacy in Italian when Mussolini took power, with the American population's preconditions as media consumers today. Mussolini had to use propagandistic film newspapers, while Trump used 144 characters on Twitter. Although Mussolini claimed that Italy had the world's freest press in 1929, he banned the use of question marks in all newspaper headlines in 1939 – question marks could cast doubt on the population, he claimed. In today's United States, few newspapers read – Trump called both the New York Times and CNN "false, horrible, fake reporting".

Putin and Berlusconi

Newer strongmen such as Putin, Orbán and Erdoğan are more subtle in their ways of propaganda – they spread false news, they initiate time-consuming and expensive procedures to run radio, television and newspapers. They monopolize internet access, and they threaten opponents with the mafia. But at the same time, they stage themselves as supreme men of the people – remember the photograph of Putin riding bare-chested in Siberia or Berlusconi half-naked at a party with a visible erection… Anything new here?

Violence is also a long chapter. Hitler and the Nazi regime's Holocaust is well known, but possibly Americans are not as familiar with European war stories as we are? In any case, a lot of space is devoted to events I read about in high school. Nor do the descriptions of Franco and Pinochet's acts of violence bring much new. That Erdoğan and Putin have a secret police force that is beating up, imprisoning and making enemies disappear, or that Trump at the end of May 2020 summoned 5000 soldiers to Washington DC in connection with BLM the protests are probably not unknown either.

Ben-Ghiat writes in an engaging way. Still, I am left with a slightly ugly feeling. Is it too much See and Hear? Why are there no new theories or models for how authoritarian leaders seize power and retain it? Isn't the comparison between Trump and Hitler going a little too far? Is Ben-Ghiat kicking open doors?

Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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